California’s high-speed rail system is on stronger ground Monday due to lower costs and a dedicated funding source from the state’s climate change fund, among other improvements, rail leaders said.
Under sunny skies at a Fresno press conference, members of the California High Speed Rail Authority and local elected officials said the revised business plan, pending approval from the HSRA Board, makes the project “better, faster and cheaper.”
Those three words were first issued as a command from California Governor Jerry Brown to HSRA Board members following criticism of previous plans from , , and alike. Critics insist the project will , is based on , , and has been .
HSRA Chairman Dan Richard joined supporters in saying today that those criticisms were taken to heart, and that the new plan reflects numerous changes designed to assuage those concerns.
“Drawing on hundreds of public comments as well as the expertise of our technical staff, we were able to refine our thinking and improve the plan enormously,” said Richard. “The revised plan will enhance local rail service immediately and, in the long term, cut total project costs by $30 billion.”
Under the new plan, construction on the first segment of the train, or Initial Operating Section, will begin this year and connect Merced to the San Fernando Valley with a 300-mile stretch. The plan also explicitly calls for bolstering existing urban rail systems, like Caltrain, in order to bring immediate benefits to riders while allowing eventual integration into the high-speed rail system.
By focusing on existing rail systems with a “blended approach,” and by finding other cost savings and modifying their inflation assumptions, the Authority says it can shave $30 billion off the previous cost estimate, which was nearly $100 billion.
"In ten years, Californians will be able to travel through the Central Valley and into the Los Angeles Basin in half the time it takes to drive," said Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. "This revised plan is bold, practical and puts California out in front once again."
In addition to Caltrain, the revised business plan also calls for upgrading the San Joaquin Amtrak line between Sacramento and Bakersfield, as well as rail systems in Southern California such as Metrolink. By phasing out diesel locomotives and switching to electrified rail systems, those transit agencies would save money and quicken transit times while the rest of the statewide high-speed system gets built, leaders said.
The revised plan pushes the 520-mile system completion date out to 2028, with service beginning in 2029, and would purportedly total $68.4 billion in cost.
$6 billion has already been secured for the first segment, including $3.3 in federal funding and $2.7 billion from Proposition 1A bond funds, which voters authorized in 2008.
Rail officials said that any additional money needed to complete the first segment would be available from California’s cap and trade funds, and that no operating subsidy will be required.
“The plan is realistic, credible and transparent,” said Authority Board Member Mike Rossi. “This plan is responsible from a business perspective and is a solid investment for Californians. There is no need for operating subsidies and the system will attract private capital once the operating segment stabilizes ridership in 2022.”
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said her city, and the Central Valley as a whole, has a tremendous amount to gain from the Authority’s decision to build there first. The Initial Operating Segment is projected by the Authority to create 100,000 job-years of employment over five years—the equivalent to 20,000 full-time jobs annually.
"I applaud the work undertaken by the Brown Administration and the High-Speed Rail Authority to lower the cost of the project and accelerate the completion of the Initial Operating Segment,” said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. “Fresnans will benefit tremendously from the immediate economic boost that comes with 20,000 high-paying construction jobs, as well as the long-term benefit of being able to quickly and inexpensively travel to and from the LA basin.”
Rail leaders also touted the environmental benefits of the project, arguing that the system would reduce 146 million hours of time spent by drivers sitting in gridlock each year, and would pull three million tons of carbon emissions out of the air. The train would also eliminate 320 billion vehicle miles traveled over the next 40 years, according to the Authority.
The revised plan still must win approval from the HSRA Board at their April 12 meeting, which had originally been schedule for April 3, but was moved in order to give stakeholders time to review and react to the new plan.