In a breakthrough for the country’s most expensive public infrastructure project, California’s bullet train finally appears to have the money and the legal approval to complete its first leg. What remains a challenge is how to link that initial 171-mile route through the state’s Central Valley agricultural heartland to population centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose—and how its designers will overcome California’s mountainous terrain and seismic risks.
State legislators agreed last month to release $4.2 billion earmarked for the train’s first phase, between midsize cities Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced. The project may also benefit from more than $2 billion of federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds set aside for passenger rail. Extending service to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles would boost the amount of track to 500 miles and the train’s total price tag to as much as $105 billion. That’s far above an initial estimate of about $40 billion when California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to help build it in 2008.
“It’s not an easy task to build a system like this,” said Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “It’s a tough slog, but it’s one worth doing.”
Four years ago, the state tapped Kelly, a veteran transportation official, to get matters back on track after early management blunders threatened public support. Legal challenges and securing all the land needed to build even the first, relatively flat phase were also priorities. Today, 119 miles of concrete, bridgelike viaducts and other structures on which electric trains will someday run at over 200 mph are being built—bringing temporary headaches to downtown Fresno—with new work poised to begin on the remaining 52 miles that are now funded. Critically, Kelly and his team have also secured more than 90% of the land needed to keep construction on track.
The project “is alive and well and creating employment opportunities for thousands of workers who are engaged in the most innovative and transformative project our nation has seen in almost 75 years,” said Karen Philbrick, executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute. “The legislative support to advance an electrified HSR segment between Merced and Bakersfield is incredibly meaningful.”
Where Philbrick sees opportunity, critics see a boondoggle. “This is an enormous waste of money,” said Oakland-based attorney Stu Flashman, who sued to block funding for the train’s first phase, arguing it violated the state’s constitution. “My clients don’t feel it’s ever going to result in a viable high-speed rail line.”
It’s “the most transformative project our nation has seen in almost 75 years.”
– Executive Director Karen Philbrick, Mineta Transportation Institute
California’s Court of Appeals ruled against Flashman late last year, allowing construction to continue. That victory and recent funding developments give the train a degree of stability for the time being.
It’s a big shift from a few years ago when then President Donald Trump withheld $929 million of federal funds awarded years earlier and threatened to claw back $2.5 billion doled out by the Obama Administration. Longtime train commuter President Joe Biden restored those funds in 2021 and wants more bullet-train projects, both for the jobs they’ll generate and to help cut climate-warming emissions from cars.
The California project, which estimates travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles will be less than three hours, also receives about $1 billion annually from the state’s Cap and Trade program, a de facto carbon tax on major emitters of greenhouse gasses. While the Build Back Better infrastructure money was never approved, there’s a pool of other new federal money California can tap for future needs.