Against California High Speed Rail by Mark R. Powell

California High Speed Rail: Costs Soar As Planning Goes Off Its Tracks

Put a Fork in it.  This Turkey is Done.
California’s High Speed Rail Authority strives to avoid making public the massive cost overruns its staff now envisions.  The Authority prefers press releases that hype additional funds directed to California from other states that are wisely abandoning high speed rail projects.  However, occasionally a staff member slips up and goes on the record with pieces of updated cost information. This article strives to connect those dots.

$100 Million per Mile to Cross the Tehachapi Mountains
A staff member made unheralded news at the Authority’s Operations Committee Meeting on May 4, 2011 when he made the claim that changing the rail alignment over the Tehachapi Mountains to follow I-5 would save 25 miles at “a cost of $100Million/mile”[Note 1],or $2.5Billion, in addition to shortening travel time by 7-9 minutes.  The $100Million/mile figure is nearly double the $54.7Million/mile previously estimated for crossing the Tehachapi Mountains along Highway 58 [Note 2].  In other words, the “technically challenging” work of building high speed rail across a mountain range riddled with earthquake faults has doubled from its original estimate and it now makes sense to study the I-5 route rejected 6 years ago.  Reasons for rejecting this route were clearly delineated in the Record of Decision made at the conclusion of extensive environmental studies [Note 3].

The Operations Committee then recommended to the full Board making a $700,000 expenditure to do the “conceptual study”  to determine if the I-5 route is “feasible” and should be carried forward as an alternative route in its environmental studies.  In making this decision the Operations Committee (1) disregarded the wording of Proposition 1A (the Safe Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act) that promised all Californians, and specifically Antelope Valley residents, the route would go from Bakersfield to Palmdale and then on to Los Angeles; (2) exposed their contempt for landowners and residents along a potential I-5 route who have been building homes and developing land ever since this route was eliminated from consideration with the approval of the Statewide HSR Program Environmental Impact Report in 2005; (3) revealed how easily they can commit nearly a million dollars of taxpayer money for another study; (4) displayed disdain for their own Project Level Environmental Process which has no provision to study a route connecting Bakersfield to Santa Clarita (where it would intersect the path connecting Palmdale to LA); and (5) demonstrated how desperate they have become now that costs are double what was envisioned only 18 months ago in the Authority’s December 2009 Report to the Legislature. 

This matter was again discussed and public comments were made at the Authority Board Meeting the following day.  In spite of Chairman Pringle’s concern that “we are opening the door…to potentially doing, redoing other decisions anywhere along the line that have been made in the past.. this is a fragile place to be” [Note 4], the motion to study the Interstate-5 route was approved without dissent.

Construction Costs Double in the Central Valley
We now know it will cost double the previous estimate to cross the Tehachapi Mountains, but what will be the cost to cross the Central Valley? A hint of the cost overruns being experienced in the Merced to Fresno segment slipped out at the Authority’s May 5, 2011 Board Meeting at the end of Mr. Richard Wenzel’s presentation of the Supplemental Alternatives Analysis Report for this segment (Agenda Item #7) when he was asked by Vice-Chairperson Thomas Umberg about the cost savings associated with the proposed changes.  Mr. Wenzel responded in two parts, first addressing costs without the proposed changes (converting aerial to at-grade track) and then enumerating the savings associated with the proposed changes.

 Mr. Wenzel’s response:  “Between the three alternatives, giving or taking the various east-west connections, it’s approximately an order of magnitude of $5-$7Billion with the aerials included…Bringing the aerials down to grade as recommended there would be about a  $700 to $900 Million construction cost savings.  Bringing track to grade results in other costs, but I’m just talking pure construction of the system.” [Note 5]

Taking the midpoint of both ranges results in a gross cost of $5.2 Billion and then adding likely costs associated with road crossings of $200Million (25% of the gross savings) one arrives at a net cost of $5.4 Billion.  Compare this to the $2.7 Billion estimate for the Merced to Fresno Segment itemized in the Authority’s December 2009 Report to the Legislature [Note 6] and again we see that costs have doubled in the past 18 months.

The Board then listened to a similar presentation involving relocating aerial segments to at-grade along the Fresno to Bakersfield segment of the proposed high speed rail route.  Unfortunately, no questions were asked about costs, and/or potential savings, along this section. However, one can reasonably assume that costs along this section will be similar to the costs of the Merced to Fresno section and that they too have doubled since the previous estimate.

Van Ark Admits Final Mile from San Jose to San Francisco will Cost $2 – $2.5 Billion!
Item #5 on the Boards Agenda for May 5 was an update from staff on the San Francisco to San Jose segment.  This is one of several segments where “technical challenges”, code for gigantic cost overruns, have prompted the Rail Authority to proceed with a “phased implementation”, code for doing as little work as possible while still making a case that high speed rail will someday connect San Francisco to Los Angeles. 

Much of the staff presentation centered around a letter recently addressed to the Authority by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joseph Simitian, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon.  Their letter includes the following directives:

 “We explicitly reject the notion of high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco on an elevated structure or “viaduct”; and we call on the High-Speed Rail Authority to eliminate further consideration of an aerial option;

We fully expect that high-speed rail running from San Jose to San Francisco can and should remain within the existing Caltrain right of way; and,

Third and finally, consistent with a project of this more limited scope, the Authority should abandon its preparation of an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for a phased project of larger dimensions over a 25 year timeframe. Continuing to plan for a project of this scope in the face of limited funding and growing community resistance is a fool’s errand; and is particularly ill-advised when predicated on ridership projections that are less than credible.”[Note 7]

 In other words, these elected officials are telling the Authority to use high speed rail funds to improve the existing Caltrain tracks and provide electrification so that high speed trains can be accommodated and to do no more.  Unfortunately, Caltrain tracks extend only into San Francisco to 4th and King Streets.  Proposition 1A and Senate Bill 3034, which gave birth to Proposition 1A, specifically state that Phase 1 of the statewide system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco will terminate at San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal.  Google Maps puts the Transbay Terminal a little over a mile north of 4th and King Streets.

Clearly the elected officials are concerned with the escalating costs of this project. The California High Speed Rail Authority’s CEO, Roelof Van Ark, justified their concern when he was asked to provide an estimate of the cost to go the extra mile and extend the minimal system from 4th and King Streets to Transbay Terminal.  Mr. Van Ark’s answer, “$2-$2.5Billion”.[Note 8]

No one should be surprised that none of the costs mentioned in this article made their way into the Authority’s Press Release of May 5. [Note 9]  California’s High Speed Rail Authority has made it their mission to delay publicizing the devastating news regarding the costs of their project.  They seem to hope that if they can only start construction and begin spending billions of dollars, then their project will become too big to fail and endless funds will be forthcoming. 

Truth be told, California High Speed Rail HAS failed.  Promises made to Californians cannot possibly be kept and this project needs to be shutdown.  Write to your legislators in Sacramento [Note 10] and Washington [Note 11]and tell them the results are in.  California High Speed Rail is a foolish boondoggle.  It needs to be defunded and all work stopped.  Don’t forget to include Paul Ryan (R-WI) [Note 12], chairman of the House Budget Committee in your correspondence.

Statements made in this article are supported by footnotes shown below.  Links embedded into the article allow the reader to access these sources directly.
Note 1  May 4, 2011 Operations Committee Audio at 24 minutes and 0 seconds into the audio recording

Note 2   Authority’s December 2009 Report to the Legislature
           page 85 Table 1 Capital Costs by Segment with prorated per mile electrification   costs

Note 3 Record of Decision California High Speed Train System, Section 6.1, page 10

Note 4   Video of CHSRA Board Meeting May 5, 2011 at 42 minutes and 13 seconds into the video recording

Note 5   Video of CHSRA Board Meeting May 5, 2011 at 2 hours 37 minutes and 55 seconds into the video recording

Note 6   Authority’s December 2009 Report to the Legislature
           page 85 Table 1 Capital Costs by Segment with prorated per mile electrification costs


Note  8  Video of CHSRA Board Meeting May 5, 2011 at 1 hours 30 minutes and 33 seconds into the video recording

Note 9 CHSRA Press Release May 5, 2011 High Speed Rail Authority Board Takes Action on Statewide Planning

 Note 10   Website to contact California Legislative Representatives

Note 11   Website to contact Congressional Representatives

Note 12    Website to contact Representative Paul Ryan, Chairman of House Budget Committee

3 Responses to California High Speed Rail: Costs Soar As Planning Goes Off Its Tracks

  1. Newt Barrett says:

    I am in complete agreement with this post and with all the great research and writing you’ve done. But, the Cal. HSR interests are squealing like stuck pigs–appropriate, I guess, for all this pork.
    I think what’s missing in almost all mainstream media is tough reporting to get at the facts. Rather we get quotes in the big papers from Cal. HSR proponents like Van Ark and Jim Costa repeating fact-free or fact-challenged statements. Costa stated, for example, “High-speed rail experts have carefully and objectively concluded that the San Joaquin Valley is the best place to begin construction of the system.” I don’t believe there are any such experts.
    You and others like, Martin Engel (who is a committed Democrat) have done brilliant work. I’m just sorry that you aren’t reporters for the LA Times or the SF Chronicle in the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein.
    I wish this project was dead, but I’m afraid that so many special interests have so much at stake that it may live on in a Monty Python kind of way: “Ain’t dead yet!”
    I have a vision of 100 miles of track in the Central Valley connected to nothing, with no electrification and no rolling stock. I hope I’m wrong but I think that your only victory may be to say “I told you so,” many years down the road.

  2. Mark says:

    I appreciate, and am in agreement, with your entire comment except for your reference to Martin Engel. My prediction is that Martin will be a committed conservative by 2012. I know that he is already leaning right.

  3. Taylor Braz says:


    Thank you for continually investigating the CAHSR.

    I am fearful of the notion that “their project will become too big to fail and endless funds will be forthcoming.” That we will then have to do another bail out.

    This experimental project hammers on my head. I sometimes wonder, if you were to make a bar chart of the state’s capital improvements where would this rank? This would rank #1 at $200 Billion, Golden Gate at $10 Billion, Mulholland’s Aqueduct at $9 Billion, California Aqueduct at $7 Billion, etc. If you were to make a pie chart of the state’s yearly spending where would this bond’s payment rank? Education probably 50%, yearly payments on bond liabilities 20%, public works 5%, and CAHSR bond 25%. Additionally, bond’s capital cost aside, this CSHSR is probably going to operate at a loss. It’s going to be like Amtrack which is subsidized by the Federal Government, where the capital is already present, but fairs don’t pay for staff. It’s going to be like Europe’s HSR that is subsidized by the gov.

    They are really trying to say, “forget the cost, it’s going to be green!!!” If CO2 is a real issue, then do a carbon tax.

    Taylor Braz

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