High-speed rail is coming to the Central Valley. Residents see a new life in the fast lane

FRESNO, Calif. —  The piling rig was in position, ready to drive a concrete pillar 40 feet into the ground. Just beyond the rig on this winter afternoon, trucks and cars continued streaming down State Road 198 in Hanford, separated from the construction site by white dividers.

Then, the pile-driving began. Foot by foot, the rig’s hammer slammed the pillar into the ground with the rhythmic beat of a metronome. With every blow, the ground shook and exhaust spewed. The beam would be one more in a network of pillars pounded deep into the earth to create the foundation for a high-speed rail line that in a matter of years will glide along tracks above the state highway, launching a new era in California’s Central Valley.

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From earth-moving equipment to heavy trucks ferrying massive beams and bulldozers clearing piles of debris, construction related to California’s high-speed rail project is evident across the San Joaquin Valley. Farther north, crews worked atop a viaduct that will carry the high-speed line above existing freight tracks that cut across the state north to south. And in Fresno’s Chinatown, restaurant and retail owners eagerly served a steady influx of construction workers, engineers and electricians, part of a broader transformation of the city’s downtown and economic prospects.

California’s high-speed rail may still be a matter of carping debate in some political circles, but it’s fast becoming a reality for residents of the Central Valley. This heavily farmed region — historically separated from Los Angeles, San Francisco and the California coast by both conservative politics and physical distance — is first in line to benefit from an infrastructure project being built with tens of billions of dollars in state and federal funding.

The 171-mile stretch of rail running between Merced and Bakersfield could be operational as early as 2030, with testing of the bullet trains slated to begin in 2028, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority. The project has created more than 12,000 construction jobs, with 70% of those workers coming from the Central Valley. Authority officials cited 25 active construction sites, with the Kings/Tulare station outside Hanford being the largest. The authority is closing in on finishing 22 miles of rail north of Shafter, set to be the first segment of the rail line completed.

In December, the Biden administration awarded the authority a $3.1-billion grant, the authority’s biggest award to date. The funds will go toward purchase of six electric trains for testing and use, design and construction of the Fresno station and designs for the Merced and Bakersfield extensions.

Residents and local officials acknowledge there has long been dissent over the project. Some of the region’s big farm interests have mounted fierce opposition, rallying conservative lawmakers to their cause. But the tenor of the conversation has changed as more jobs are created and structures go up.

When Interstate 5 was conceived in the mid-20th century as a major transportation corridor connecting California from north to south, the Central Valley’s interests were not part of the equation. The route skirts the valley’s rural western edge, and its major population centers — Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield — were left out. In contrast, the high-speed rail line will cut through the heart of the valley, and Fresno and Bakersfield are key transportation hubs along the route.

The first operating segment of the high-speed line will run from Bakersfield in the south to Merced in the north. The vision is to ultimately extend service to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even before those planned expansions, the rail line will intersect with existing passenger rail in Merced and a satellite bus network in Bakersfield to create more seamless nonauto travel options.

Local officials believe that connectivity will open all sorts of horizons: making it easier for people to live inland, where housing is relatively affordable, and still work on the coast. Access to jobs — particularly nonfarm jobs — and top-notch colleges will expand. And a region notably lacking in hospitals and healthcare professionals will have more options.

“To say I’m excited is an understatement,” said Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, a Republican. “High-speed rail is a game-changer for Fresno and the Central Valley in many ways. No. 1, it will reconnect Fresno and the entire valley with the rest of the state and connect us with the California economy.”

In Fresno’s Chinatown, there is a rich history of diverse communities driven together by redlining policies.

Dating to the 1860s, Chinese migrants working on the freight railways were forced west of the tracks. Pretty much anyone who was not white migrated to what became Chinatown, and a thriving community evolved as people from Africa, the Philippines, Mexico and Japan settled in the area. All that began to unravel in the 1960s when urban renewal projects brought freeway construction that severed Chinatown from the rest of the city and forced mass displacement of residents. Businesses shuttered, buildings were abandoned, and those who remained lived amid blight.

Central Fish Co., opened in 1950, is one of the longest-standing businesses that remain. Owner Morgan Doizaki, who took over the shop from his parents, is a big proponent of the rail project. He, along with other business and property owners, formed the nonprofit Chinatown Fresno Foundation to support the rail line and advocate for the neighborhood’s inclusion in Fresno’s transformation. The Fresno station will be built on the site of the city’s historic depot center in downtown, and related renovations involving roads and walkways will connect commuters to Chinatown.

The massive reconstruction is not without challenges. Carniceria y Taqueria La Nueva Reyna, which has served traditional Mexican dishes on Tulare Street for more than a decade, has put up large, colorful banners to let people know they remain open. To get inside, patrons must navigate bright orange netting, maneuvering around missing sidewalks and large machinery. While they have lost some old customers, owner Reyna Cruz said, they’ve also gotten new business from construction workers stopping by for lunch and beverages on their breaks. “There are good times and bad times,” she said as workers streamed in to buy sodas on a Monday afternoon.

Central Fish Co. customers have to navigate a maze of road closures that sometimes box in the store, Doizaki said. Still, he is hopeful. In 2019, he purchased a building in Chinatown that he envisions turning into an apartment and retail complex.

“When the time is right, we’ll be in a position to capitalize on the state’s largest project ever coming into our backyard,” he said. “It’s like a gift.”

Orlando Viloria, who works for Doizaki, is also excited by the rail line’s promise. He envisions day trips to Los Angeles to see his family and them zipping up to see him. “That’s always been my dream,” he said. “I just can’t wait.”

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Did the federal government make the right call giving money to California high-speed rail projects?

The Biden administration announced recently that it would give $6 billion to two high-speed rail projects in California.

While only a fraction of total costs, it was seen by some transportation advocates as a win for California because it is getting a big portion of infrastructure funds largely because it already had two high-speed projects started.

Critics argue the California high-speed rail project, from L.A. to San Francisco (and eventually extended to San Diego), has gone too far over budget and it is time to cut losses and end it.

The L.A. to Las Vegas rail project is seen as more politically favorable because it is private-public partnership. Yet $3 billion from taxpayers puts the project under more scrutiny. Skeptics have questioned if a rail line to Las Vegas is necessary when travelers could just fly or drive. Also, current plans for the Brightline rail have it starting in Rancho Cucamonga, which will likely mean a long commute (by car, Metrolink rail or bus) just to get on it.

Proponents say the U.S. is behind on high-speed rail, which they say will ease traffic construction and reduce pollution.

Q: Did the federal government make the right call giving money to California high-speed rail projects?

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

NO: Stop putting good money after bad. The federal government is subsidizing these projects that even with this additional funding, will not be enough to finish them. More funding will be required that California can’t currently sustain and continues to be a waste of taxpayer money. Cost overruns, poor planning, and poor decision making have unfortunately plagued the rail projects from the start.

David Ely, San Diego State University

NO: The rail project connecting the Bay area to Southern California does not have a high probability of ever being completed. Even completing the Central Valley section will be challenging. The $3 billion going toward this project could be better spent elsewhere. The case for supporting the Brightline West project is stronger given the lower construction barriers and the involvement of a private partner who has demonstrated success in a high-speed rail project in Florida.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

YES: High-speed rail would yield immense economic and environmental benefits. The U.S., with no fully functional high-speed rail service, lags far behind Asia and Europe, where governments have strategically invested in thousands of miles of tracks. Limited public investment and overregulation lead to delays and high costs in the U.S. Buy American laws prevent the use of low-cost imported materials further boosting costs. This is just a start; more ambition and investment are needed.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

NO: In 15 years since the HSR was approved, no rail lines or project conditions have been completed. Projected costs are more than quintupled so far and at current pace will not likely be completed this century. Final costs for the nation’s “biggest boondoggle in history” are impossible to realistically project. Better to put more money into lower-cost projects linking disparate parts of the existing state rail network than sinking more into a bottomless money pit.

Lynn Reaser, economist

NO: Both physical and monetary constraints will doom the two projects. The Brightline project serving the Las Vegas market would make sense if it extended to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles rather than just Rancho Cucamonga. The budget shortfall for the California project will still be about $78 billion. Businesses, residents, and utilities would need to be moved, making the high-speed train only distant vision for the entire San Francisco to Anaheim route.

Phil Blair, Manpower

YES: Many outlandish projects need government support to get off the ground. The differentiating factor here is a private company sees potential in the route. They have experience and will build the line and manage it. These are not the government’s strengths.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

NO: It is time to reevaluate the concept of high speed rail in California. I do not see the social utility of an L.A. to Vegas line: it is not about commuting or economic expansion. The L.A. to San Francisco line is fraught with intractable complications. And the central California route is ridiculous. I like fast trains, but it may be an outdated approach. High tech solutions, involving autonomous, personal vehicles just might make more sense.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

NO: That’s not to say that high-speed rail isn’t important. Its benefits include reduced congestion, reduced pollution, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. But the U.S. just can’t seem to build rail systems anymore. Cost overruns lead to projects going way over budget, and there are often protracted battles over routing. For California in particular, there is too much urban sprawl, which reduces the density necessary to support rail systems.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

NO: The “train to nowhere” (no offense intended to residents of Merced and Bakersfield) is projected to cost more than $20 billion — several billion dollars more than a previous projection made in 2019 and is likely to grow more expensive. It will duplicate an Amtrak route and go nowhere in helping the L.A. to San Francisco route, as promised by Gov. Newsom. Give back to taxpayers the $4 billion to $5 billion of remaining funds from the original $9 billion bond that was approved.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

YES and NO: Half the $6 billion is well spent, the other half not. The dream of a high-speed rail connecting L.A. to San Francisco is never going to happen, and any new federal contribution to that is throwing good money after bad. By contrast, connecting L.A. to Las Vegas could make economic sense, as evidenced by the substantial commitment of private investors. Building on public-private partnerships is a promising way to temper politician’s dreams with the reality of economic costs and benefits.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

NO: I remain baffled by the exponential cost inflation associated with infrastructure projects. That money could fly more than 60 million people to Vegas without the drive to San Bernardino. I am also uncomfortable with tax dollars substantially subsidizing a private venture. If we believe public, environmentally-friendly transit is a priority, we should consider options that make these projects more economically viable. It may be time to consider new solutions like automated e-buses that don’t require substantial infrastructure.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

NO: Unless the projects are funded by federal resources, and the governor and legislature can commit to doing a better job of staying within budget and on schedule, I can’t support them. While I do believe there is a need to improve transportation in the state, I think there are higher needs and priorities for funding with state resources right now, especially given that California is looking at record budget deficits.

Click here to read that the full article in the SD Union Tribune

High-Speed Rail Route from San Francisco to San Jose Wins Approval. What happens Next?

Over concerns of a pair of Bay Area cities, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board finalized its choice of a route alternative for about 49 miles of tracks between San Francisco and San Jose. Thursday’s actions included certification of thousands of pages of environmental analysis for the stretch, in which high-speed trains will eventually share an upgraded and electrified rail corridor with the Caltrain passenger train service on the San Francisco Peninsula. The 8-0 vote (with one board member absent) took place in a meeting held by teleconference among rail authority board members scattered across the state.

It represents the latest step in providing the environmental clearance for a statewide system that is ultimately planned to link San Francisco with Los Angeles and Anaheim by way of the San Joaquin Valley, with electric-powered trains carrying passengers at speeds up to 220 mph. “Today is really a momentous event, with a tremendous amount of work behind it to get where we are today with an environmentally cleared project from the Bay Area through the Central Valley,” Tom Richards, a Fresno developer and the authority board chairperson, said after the vote. “If nothing else, what it does is prepare and move this entire project forward toward construction.”

Brian Kelly, the rail agency’s chief executive officer, said certification of the San Francisco-San Jose corridor means the agency has now completed and certified its environmental analyses for all but two sections of the 500-mile San Francisco-Los Angeles/Anaheim system. The only gaps in clearance are a 38-mile segment between the Mojave Desert city of Palmdale and the San Fernando Valley community of Burbank, and a stretch from downtown Los Angeles to Anaheim. “A lot of people have lost sight that this project is about San Francisco to Los Angeles,” Kelly told The Fresno Bee after the vote. “With today’s environmental document being certified by our board, we have now cleared San Francisco into Los Angeles County.”

“It really reflects what we’re trying to do: get service started in the (San Joaquin Valley) where construction is under way, and we’re trying to advance that full Phase 1 system from San Francisco to Los Angeles,” Kelly added. “By getting this done, we can now start designing those other segments as we bring operations forward in the Valley. We can advance the design, start talking about acquiring right of way, and figuring out the rest of the San Francisco-LA project.” CONCERNS RAISED DURING MEETING On Wednesday, during public comments on the environmental analysis, representatives of the city of Millbrae, which is south of San Francisco, expressed concern with some aspects of the plans. They asserted that the documents did not fully consider the effects that the bullet-train project and potential station locations could have on the city’s development plans near its transportation station that is shared by both the Caltrain commuter trains and BART trains that connect communities throughout the Bay Area.

In response, staff for the high-speed rail authority noted that the environmental documents don’t represent a final design for stations. They pledged to collaborate with local city officials in Millbrae on future plans for expanding and sharing the BART/Caltrain station. They also said they will work with officials in nearby Brisbane on plans for a maintenance facility near a former landfill along the east side of the Caltrain corridor. Improvements to the Caltrain line to accommodate high-speed trains will include some grade-separated crossings, while other roads will have enhanced crossing gates to bar drivers from going around barriers when trains are approaching.

Gary Kennerley, director of Northern California projects for the rail agency, said those features, along with installing overhead electric systems to replace Caltrain’s current fleet of diesel-powered trains, are expected to allow the high-speed trains to operate at speeds up to 110 mph, an increase of about 30 mph compared to current speeds on the peninsula corridor. Earlier this year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board approved a route from San Jose to Merced; a segment from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles was approved last year. In the San Joaquin Valley, the rail agency currently has three construction sections under way between the northern end of Madera and the community of Shafter in Kern County – a 119-mile stretch that will include a station in downtown Fresno but stops short of future station sites in downtown Merced and north-central Bakersfield.

Click here to read the full article at the Fresno Bee

California’s Electric High Speed Rail: No Power, No Money, No ‘High Speed’

Many wonder if the high-speed trains will be powered by windmills, solar panels, cooking oil and algae

“If it is built, California’s High-Speed Rail would be the largest public works project in state history. That fact alone appears be intoxicating to state officials, in a perpetual quest to have California be the first state to do anything,” I reported in 2011. That’s how long California’s High Speed Rail has served only as a jobs program and a really bad joke on California voters and taxpayers.

By 2011, it was apparent that the High Speed Rail Authority was violating important mandates in the 2008 initiative, passed by votersProposition 1A, $9 billion in bonds for high-speed rail, included numerous mandates, none of which can be legally bypassed on the way to building the massive train system.

Top on the list is that the rail system must be high-speed. “Electric trains that are capable of sustained maximum revenue operating speeds of no less than 200 miles per hour,” the law states. However, much of the first segment between Fresno and Bakersfield is not high-speed; nor will high-speed be attainable in dense cities.

“Despite the warnings of a nearly $100 billion ballooning price tag, no track laid, no trains running, decreasing legislative support and even opposition from diehard rail advocates, the High-Speed Rail Authority is steaming ahead full throttle with plans to build the most expensive high-speed rail system in history.” That is also from 2011 – 11 years ago. And nothing has changed except more spending on the train to nowhere.

A 2011 Field poll found that two thirds of Californians want a new referendum on the project. And by a two-to-one margin, they say they’d vote to derail it, only three years after passing Prop. 1A.

California Senate Republicans just issued a “Myths vs. Facts” report on California’s High Speed Rail debacle. They reported, “14 years later, this ‘efficient’ bullet train was supposed to be completed in the early 2020s, but it is nowhere near completion, while the cost has ballooned to $105 billion from $33 billion. In the 2022-2023 state budget, Legislative Democrats earmarked another $4.2 billion for the first phase of the project, which would run from Bakersfield to Merced.”

“Adding insult to California voters, the California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) has published a website peddling myths about the bullet train,” Senate Republicans said. “While they suggest they are trying to ‘dispel myths’ and separate ‘fact from fiction,’ their own website is rampant with more opinions than facts.”

Even in 2011, California’s High Speed Rail pushers were agitating for the $3.5 billion in matching federal funding for the rail plan. However, that federal money came with a requirement of use exclusively in the economically depressed Central Valley.

A 2011 report by the Legislative Analyst found that future High-Speed Rail funding sources were “highly speculative,” and the economic impact analysis included in the rail authority’s plan “may be incomplete and imbalanced, and therefore portrays the project more favorably than may be warranted.”

Ya think? It’s 2022 and High Speed Rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles is still just a pipe dream – especially the “high speed” part.

In February 2019, President Trump called for California to return all federal rail funding, following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state of the state address where the Governor vowed to kill High Speed Rail saying, “there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA.”  However, Newsom flipped on his promise within the week, announcing he was allowing one odd segment of the rail project to be built in the Central Valley, nicknamed “the conjugal express,” going from prison to prison, Madera to Bakersfield.  The goal for the strange and unnecessary rail line was so California would not have to return $3.5 billion to the federal government.

California Senate Republicans take a deeper dive and break down the real myths vs facts:

Myth: High-Speed Rail will “establish a clean, efficient 220 MPH transportation system.”

Fact: “There has been nothing efficient about high-speed rail in California. The original cost of the project was projected to be $33 billion and is now expected to be at least $105 billion before it is completed. What is worse, the plan no longer even includes purchasing trains. So, the state doesn’t have a way to test if the system works, or if the trains can even go the promised 220mph.”

reported in 2011, “Complicating matters, the first segment of the rail system won’t even run high-speed trains until the entire system is built. The initiative required the train to be only high-speed.”

Myth: High-Speed Rail will allow travel “from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 2 ½ hours for about $50 a person.”

Fact: “Way back in 2015 the Los Angeles Times conducted a study and determined the cost to ride high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco under the best of circumstances would be between $83 and $105. With the cost rising from $33 billion to at least $105 billon and inflation at a 40-year high, the likely cost will be considerably more, if, (or when) the system is ever completed.”

Myth: High-Speed Rail will be completed as early as 2020.

Fact: That date has come and gone. The first leg of high-speed rail, from Merced to Bakersfield, now has an estimated completion of 2029.

Remember, the initiative was passed by voters in 2008.

According to to Proposition 1A, The California High-Speed Rail Authority must have all of the the funding ahead of time, before any construction starts on a new segment.

Pacific Gas &Electric and Southern California Edison will be providing the electricity for high-speed rail, with estimates of additional demands for electricity already coming in at 1 percent to 5 percent of the state’s total energy usage. “Even Cal ISO doesn’t have any estimates for the cost,” a Capitol staffer told me in 2012. “High-speed rail has got to consume a great deal of power. Where will the power come from?”

That question was never answered. And with California’s deficient electricity grid, electric car owners are told not to charge their cars on hot summer afternoons. It’s clear the state can’t handle the energy requirement for the high speed train, or electric cars. they are trying to convince everyone to purchase.

Here’s what lawmakers and the High Speed Rail Authority knew in 2011:

According to a July 2011 energy usage analysis prepared for the California High-Speed Rail Program Management Team, total electricity usage for the proposed rail system would be “8.32 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per day,” and more than 3 billion kWh per year.

The average three-person household in California is about 6,000 kWh per year, or a little more than 2,000 KWh per person.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Government Boondoggles Threaten CA Property Owners and Taxpayers

High Speed Rail FresnoOne would hope that with the profound foolishness associated with California’s infamous High Speed Rail (HSR) project that our elected leadership would have learned a thing or two.

But this is California. Because we do things bigger and better than anyone else, it’s apparent that one massive boondoggle isn’t enough — we need two.

Let’s recap what we’ll call Boondoggle, Senior.

The complete dysfunction of HSR is no longer in dispute. Missed deadlines for the business plans, lack of transparency, massive cost overruns, engineering hurdles that make the project virtually impossible to complete and a lack of funding are tops on the list. Not only is HSR no longer viable, but the biggest irony is the project was justified on grounds that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even there it fails, as the independent Legislative Analyst has concluded that the project will be a net GHG producer for the foreseeable future.

HSR is now an international joke. Many who originally supported the High Speed Rail project have changed their opinions, including a former Chairman of the HSR Authority.

Boondoggle, Junior, is the planned construction of the Twin Tunnels project through the Sacramento River Delta, also known as WaterFix. While there is no doubt that California needs additional water infrastructure — and the dams and canals we have now are in need of serious maintenance – Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnel project suffers from the same major flaw as High Speed Rail — an abject lack of planning and no vision for how the project will be funded.

Like the High Speed Rail project, the financing for the Twin Tunnels is illusory. Many of the potential major wholesale customers of water from the Twin Tunnels are highly skeptical of its viability and balk at paying for it. The one exception is the Metropolitan Water District in the greater L.A. area, which has now said it will pay for the full project. Of course, that means its customers will pay.

Lack of transparency is another quality the Twin Tunnels project shares with HSR. Earlier this week, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held a hearing that opened the way for an extension of the long-term contracts for the State Water Project for another 50 years. (The hearing was supposed to be conducted in the waning days of the Legislative session, but because the topic is so controversial, it was delayed until after everyone left town.) …

Click here to read the full article from the Pasadena Star News