California Lawmakers Updated on State’s High-Speed Rail Progress
Lawmakers in the California Assembly held an oversight hearing this week to discuss the state’s ongoing high-speed rail project. It included reports on the project’s progress so far, along with discussion of its future in light of budget pressures created by the COVID-19 pandemic. David Kim, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, and Brian Kelly, CEO of the state’s High Speed Rail Authority, offered strong statements of support and optimistic accounts of the project’s progress.
Kim compared its scale and impact to that of massive New Deal projects like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Coast Highway. He noted that it is supporting jobs and providing economic stimulus at a time of dire need, with more than 500 small businesses involved in the construction. He also noted that building car and airplane infrastructure with the equivalent passenger capacity of the project’s Phase 1 line would cost more than $150 billion.
Kelly reported that about 40 percent of the first, 119-mile segment is now complete. The Authority aims to extend that segment by 52 miles, so that the endpoints of the Central Valley line will be Bakersfield (to the south) and Merced (to the north). The estimated completion date for the 119-mile segment is December 2022.
Kelly emphasized that the Authority remains committed to building the full Phase 1 line envisioned for the project, which will run from San Francisco to Anaheim (south of Los Angeles). It’s using a “integrated network” approach, in which segments are added incrementally, so the timeframe for completing the full line “will be entirely tied to the availability of funding.” That remains uncertain. If funding is secured in a timely fashion, Phase 1 could be completed by 2033. Phase 2 would extend the line north to Sacramento north and south to San Diego.
Earlier this month, the California HSRA reported data on the current and future economic impact of the project. It will create an estimated 624,000 job years in Phase 1, and it will generate $46 billion in labor income and $131 billion in economic output. (Job years are year-long, full-time jobs supported by a project. Labor income includes all forms of employment—-both employee compensation and income earned by self-employed workers. Economic output measures the overall contribution to gross domestic product.)
Kelly and Kim emphasized that the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is no time to slow down or give up, given the project’s powerful economic impact. Kim also noted that, with California’s population expected to grow to roughly 50 million people by 2055, trains are a critical tool for meeting the state’s ambitious carbon-reduction goals.
Some lawmakers expressed doubts about the project’s first segment in the Central Valley—especially the idea of extending it south to Bakersfield and north to Merced—on the basis that the money could be better spent in urban centers like the Bay Area and L.A. Some have also proposed diverting funds away from electrifying the line. If it uses cheaper diesel trains, they argue, the money saved could be spent on much-needed commuter rail upgrades in L.A.
But diesel trains, which are dirtier and slower than electrified trains, would greatly reduce many of the line’s potential economic and environmental benefits. And a fully electrified Central Valley line—with trains running from Bakersfield to Merced—is key to the big-picture goal of running high-speed trains from the Bay Area to LA in under three hours.
Kelly responded to the complaints and skepticism expressed by some lawmakers—notably about cost overruns and delays—with a strong argument for the project’s impact so far and its potential going forward. Calling it “transformative,” Kelly said that “I have been playing at transportation policy in California for 25 years and I have never seen a project offer as much as this one does, in full build-out, in terms of mobility along with environmental and economic benefits.”