California’s high-speed rail has its doubters

Daniel C. Vock / Stateline.org /

WASHINGTON — California’s effort to build a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles — the largest public works project now under way in the United States — is picking up political momentum, but even supporters wonder whether it can stay on track to meet its goal by 2029.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has scored several victories in recent months. It earned legislative approval and $3 billion in bond proceeds to start laying tracks next year in the largely agricultural Central Valley. It avoided new political threats and emerged unscathed from the November elections. And on Nov. 16 the $68 billion project survived an initial legal challenge that could have halted work.

But the obstacles in its way are still very real. The authority that oversees the project is a relatively small agency that is still bringing top leaders on board. It recently pushed back key deadlines for the first phase of the effort, including the due date for contractors to submit their bids and the completion date for the first leg. Financing for later stages of the project is still up in the air.

“This is a very expensive and very large construction project,” says John Chalker, the vice chair of a peer review group created by California law to keep an eye on the project. “This type of construction has not been built in the United States before.”

While U.S. engineers have worked on similar projects overseas, they have not had to do it under the tight deadlines imposed on the California project. The one that looms largest is the one that comes at the end of September 2017. That is when the state must be finished using its federal stimulus funds, which make up the bulk of the $3.5 billion California has received from the federal government to build high-speed rail. The state is matching that with state bond money, approved by voters in 2008. The goal of the initial stage is to build a 135-mile segment from Madera to Bakersfield.

“I would not want to have to bet that they will have 135 miles of track laid by September 2017,” Chalker says.