Biden Administration Awards $3 Billion to Brightline West Las Vegas-So Cal High Speed Rail Project

Cost of line has jumped from $8 billion to $12 billion in only the past few years

The Biden Administration announced on Tuesday that they would be awarding $3 billion through the Department of Transportation as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help start construction of the Brightline West project, a high-speed rail project that is expected to connect Las Vegas with several cities in the Inland Empire.

Since the late 2010’s, the Florida-based Brightline has been planning a Las Vegas to Southern California high-speed route, with many issues, such as where the California end terminus should go, managing to be resolved. However, final hurdles, such as financing issues and construction delays, plagued the company in the last few years. In 2020, the state of California approved $600 million worth of bond allocations, paving the way for Brightline West, then paired with Virgin Trains USA, to build soon. However, according to Brightline, “election uncertainty, the lack of approval of a Covid-19 vaccine, and lack of liquidity in the market did not allow [Brightline West] to price the bonds to provide long-term stability for the company.”

As a result, state treasurer Fiona Ma took back the allocation bonds in November 2020 and Virgin dropped out of the project, stopping the project indefinitely. However, the company bounced back the next year, even planning groundbreaking ceremonies and getting final okays from the Californian Government.

The final plan, of having stations in Rancho Cucamonga, Hesperia, Victor Valley, and Las Vegas and a track that would largely be placed in the median of I-15. Future stations would include a linkup with Los Angeles proper, as well as routes to  Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver.

In February, union agreements were finalized, and a construction start date was soon announced for later in the year. However, two major hurdles still remained: Final regulatory approval of the route, which is expected to largely be built in the I-15 median, and final federal funding, with California and Nevada lawmakers petitioning the federal government for $3.75 billion of the estimated $12 billion needed to complete it in time for the planned 2027 opening.

Last month, the Surface Transit Board (STB) approved the modified new line, now stretching 186 miles from Rancho Cucamonga to Las Vegas. This led to the Department of Transportation awarding a grant of $3 billion to the Brightline West project, with many being won over by economic benefits to both states, traffic relief along I-15, a cut in car emissions, and providing a cheaper option of travel between the two regions.

“This historic high-speed rail project will be a game changer for Nevada’s tourism economy and transportation,” said Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) in a statement on Tuesday. “It’ll bring more visitors to our state, reduce traffic on the I-15, create thousands of good paying jobs, and decrease carbon emissions, all while relying on local union labor.”

Opposition against Brightline West

However, the Brightline West project has been opposed by many transportation experts, as well as many Californian and Nevadan locals who have said that the project will ultimately do more economic harm than good and that other options, such as a mass installation of charging stations along I-15, would prove to be more successful.

“This is as big a mistake as the California High-speed rail system,” said German passenger railroad consultant Horst Bauer to the Globe on Tuesday. “To have a successful high-speed line you need several cities to support the system along the way, even if connecting two large Metro areas. Besides a few two city lines in Germany, all high-speed rail here connects more cities. The same goes for Japan, the UK, and even the other Brightline project in Florida.

“Also, not too long ago, Brightline West had a price tag of $8 billion. As any Californian knows, an initial rail line price means nothing, and today it is at $12 billion. Who knows where it will be at mid-construction.”

In a previous interview with the Globe, Bauer also noted how many cities in between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga would be ignored, including the heavily travel dependent cities of Barstow, Baker, and Primm.

“But Brightline has had a very bad reputation,” said Bauer in March. “Unlike Europe where they try to integrate cities with rail service to help businesses, they have not. In Florida, they have severely hurt local businesses and severely struggled financially for years. It is doing better now, but they also have the benefit of several nearby cities on the lines providing a better passenger stream, and like I said, severely hurts the ignored cities.

“The Inland Empire-Las Vegas route has even more issues. First of all, they need to stop calling it the ‘LA to Las Vegas route’ because it doesn’t even come close to Los Angeles. Second, the rails placement in the middle of a major highway. That should not have happened. It makes sense for lower speed rail to do that. But one wrong jump from the track or derailment and you could see highways blocked. It’s not exactly the most likely scenario, but it’s not zero either. Third, this rail system is going to kill off a lot of town dependent on car traffic. If they had stops there, they would help, but they don’t, instead relying on speed. And that would make sense going between two larger cities, but remember, this train is not between two large cities, it’s the Inland Empire and a station in Las Vegas but away from everything major.”

Bauer then added that Brightline would likely not hit passenger goals beyond the initial month.

“In the first month, there will be a lot of ridership. You know, it’s the new thing. But it will quickly shore up all those flaws, especially how people would then need to either physically park and drive from both locations or take public transit, which will only worsen parking areas along side those routes. Congestion along I-15 will go down, but it is going to be hell at a local level because of a lack of local services.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

New Cost Estimate for High-Speed Rail Puts California Bullet Train $100 Billion in the Red

When Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled his scaled down blueprint for the California bullet train four years ago, he proposed building a 171-mile starter segment in the Central Valley that would begin operating in 2030 and cost $22.8 billion.

Today, the blueprint is fraying — costs now exceed future funding, an official estimate of future ridership has dropped by 25%, and the schedule to start to carry people is slipping. That’s raising fresh concerns about the future of the nation’s largest infrastructure project.

New cost figures issued in an update report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority show that the plan to build the 171-mile initial segment has shot up to a high of $35 billion, exceeding secured funding by $10 billion.

The cost of that partial system is now higher than the $33 billion estimate for the entire 500-mile Los Angeles to San Francisco system when voters approved a bond in 2008.

What’s worse, that full system cost is set at up to $128 billion in the update, leaving a total funding gap of more than $100 billion for politicians to ponder.

Ethan Elkind, who watches California transportation issues as director of the climate change program at UC Berkeley’s law school, said the mounting problems cloud the project’s future.

“It is in jeopardy,” Elkind said. “It is dicey. There is no path forward for the full Los Angeles to San Francisco system. It is important that they get something done.”

The $128 billion price tag does not include cost updates for two separate segments between Palmdale and Anaheim, because the rail authority in the past has not updated costs until it completes environmental assessments. There could be additional jolts of sticker shock when those costs are added in the future.

“It is clear that additional funding will be necessary to deliver the…operational Merced to Bakersfield system for passenger service,” the report says.

The roughly $10 billion cost increase on the Merced to Bakersfield line includes $3.9 billion mostly for the decisions to have elevated stations and track realignments in Merced and Bakersfield; $2.1 billion for higher inflation; and $3.7 billion in contingency or reserves for future cost increases.

Brian Kelly, rail authority chief executive, said in an interview that the higher costs, which have affected projects all over the nation, represents a “tougher challenge.”

“There has never been an easy time for this project,” he said. “Nothing’s ever been easy here. This project has never had full funding.”

Kelly notes that the range of estimates for the Central Valley segment goes from a high of $35 billion down to $28 billion. The price tag of the project has grown since 2008, exceeding all the prior cost ranges.

Potential engineering risks

The current struggle follows a period when the project had strong support from the Biden Administration and Congress. But the Republican seizure of the House in 2022 elections could auger tougher times ahead.

Bakersfield native and now House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has long called the project, which would serve his own district, a boondoggle.

“In no way, shape, or form should the federal government allocate another dollar to California’s inept high speed rail,” McCarthy said in a statement to CalMatters. “The California High Speed Rail Authority has missed countless timelines and deceived the public about costs which are exorbitantly higher than originally estimated.”

Among nonpartisan state analysts, the reliability of the new cost estimates is likely to come under sharp scrutiny, including by the state-appointed Peer Review Group.

Bill Ibbs, a retired UC Berkeley civil engineer who serves on the group and has consulted on international high speed rail projects, said he is concerned about the lack of attention to engineering risks.

“They don’t directly address the hard core engineering issues,” Ibbs said, particularly the 38 miles of mountain tunnels that are planned for Southern California alone. “What are the major engineering challenges that lie in front of you and why aren’t you talking about them in this report?”

Population decline = ridership decline

The report also indicates that the date for operating the 171-mile system could stretch out to 2033 from 2030, which would delay the public benefits and account for cost pressures.

And possibly more worrisome is a cut to the projected future ridership by 25%, owing to the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally reduced the use of public transportation and California’s expected population growth has fizzled. An important justification for the bullet train since its inception was an expectation that population growth would necessitate improved passenger rail. The report nonetheless asserts the system would perform comparable to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor passenger loads.

Those factors are beyond the rail authority’s ability to control, though it has struggled with construction problems of its own in the Central Valley over the last 10 years.

More than 1,000 change orders, originated by the rail authority or by contractors, have been approved and account for much of the cost growth. They include big ticket items, such as miscalculating the need for massive barriers to prevent freight trains on nearby tracks derailing and crashing into a bullet train. About 20 change orders for that item alone run over a half billion dollars.

Construction has been held up because of problems relocating utilities, such as underground sewers, water lines and gas pipes. Currently, about half of the 2,800 projects to relocate underground utilities have not been completed, according to a separate status report issued by the rail board’s finance and audit committee. Two dozen major structures, such as viaducts and bridges, have not even started construction.

Hoping for some federal dollars

But those problems are being solved and major disputes over change orders are in the rear view mirror, the report said. Out of 2,300 parcels of land for the rail, only 92 remain to be acquired.

Newsom adopted his plan for a starter California high-speed rail system in 2018, based on a strategy that demonstrating an operational system in the Central Valley would stoke public support for building the more expensive passages through coastal mountains to the Bay Area and Southern California.

That idea preceded significant cost growth that has outstripped funding, leaving Democrats in the Legislature increasingly skittish and Republicans calling for a full blown retreat.

“It is on life support now,” said Sen. Brian Jones, a San Diego County Republican and Senate minority leader. “The governor has not been able to deliver on any of his promises.”

At this point, Jones says the project should be stopped and potentially the existing structures in the Central Valley demolished if they can not be repurposed.

Democratic leaders have declined or did not respond to requests for interviews.

“While this news is difficult, the Administration continues to review all available options, including ongoing efforts to receive additional federal dollars,” wrote Daniel Lopez, the deputy communications director for Newsom, in a statement to CalMatters. “Federal funding will be helpful in completing the Merced to Bakersfield segment on schedule, and the Administration believes that the Authority is well-positioned to compete for significant funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and other federal funding sources.”

Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, issued a statement that she would hold an oversight hearing March 28 to hear from the rail authority. It is regular practice to hold a hearing after a new project update.

Kelly believes there is a reasonable path forward. The report, issued on March 1, sets a goal for the rail authority to obtain $8 billion in federal grants under the Bipartisan Instructure Law enacted by Congress last year.

The entire pool of money for rail enacted in the infrastructure law is $75 billion, so $8 billion would appear to be a reasonable share for California. But the Biden Administration and Congress were far more generous to the Amtrak system in the law, allocating roughly $24 billion to its operations while failing to set aside any guaranteed chunk of money for California. Moreover, there are other passenger rail systems in California, which may want a share of any money headed to the Golden State.

Kelly acknowledges that the $8 billion goal is “aggressive and rightly so” because California is paying for 84% of cost so far. “If the national government wants to get a national cleaner, faster electrified rail system it has to do better than 16% And so we’re going to make that case.

“I think it’s reasonable and a prudent ask,” Kelly said. The state will know by early next year whether it will get the lifeline. Without it, the funding shortfall will be breathtaking. Before then, the Senate and Assembly will hold hearings in the next month.

Will voters OK more spending?

“It is certainly a significant funding gap,” said Helen Kerstein, who covers the rail project at the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. “Absent very significant additional federal funds, the state will need to contribute additional funding to get that segment from Merced to Bakersfield completed.”

Kerstein notes that the project failed to get a funding boost from the general fund when the state was flush with surplus tax receipts in recent years and now the state is struggling with a deficit and the likelihood of more to come. At the same time, there are other priorities.

Kerstein adds, “It’s going to be tough.”

Elkind, the UC Berkeley law professor, said ultimately the state will have to go back to voters and ask for another bond issue if there is any hope to build the complete system.

“It’s going to be harder to go back to the voters and ask for more funding, but I think that’s ultimately what’s going to be needed, which is why it’s so critical that they finish this first segment,” he said.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

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

Court Approves Lying to Voters to Pass Bonds

If ever voters needed a reason to vote no on every single bond measure that appears on the ballot, here it is: The Court of Appeal for Third Appellate District just ruled that, despite all the lies voters were told about California’s infamous High-Speed Rail project, taxpayers have no remedy, even though the project as it exists today bears no relation to what voters were told when they approved the $9.9 billion bond in 2008.

Californians were promised a super-fast train that would travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about two and a half hours; the ticket price would be about $50; the total cost of the high-speed rail would be about $40 billion; and there would be significant private-sector support –money from investors — to build the project.

Even before the 2008 vote, transportation experts were warning that the project would become a massive black hole into which California taxpayers would be committed to pouring hundreds of billions of dollars. In fact, a 2008 study sponsored by the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation predicted that the promised total cost of $45 billion would quickly turn into $100 billion or more, stating that “There are no genuine financial projections that indicate there will be sufficient funds.” The only error in the study now appears that the dollar amount was too low.

The HSR project has been the target of multiple lawsuits, including a few that challenged the legality of the entire enterprise. But it now appears that the last legal roadblock to this continued wasting of taxpayer dollars has been removed. In Tos v. State of California, the court ruled that even though nothing the voters were promised in 2008 could possibly become true, the bonds could now be sold to finance the project.

There is a disturbing message here for all California voters and taxpayers. When it comes to bond measures, nothing that is promised in the law authorizing the bond is worth the paper it is written on. If a bond act states that voter approval will authorize the construction of a high school, don’t be surprised if the revenue is later used for a prison. While that may be an extreme example, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Even more disappointing is the fact that whenever a state or local government spends bond funds for a project that deviates in substantive ways from what was described in the ballot material presented to the voters, there will be no legal remedy. The voters’ only option to prevent this bait-and-switch is to adopt a policy of blanket rejection of all bond measures.

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register