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How will we pay for the high-speed train to San Francisco?

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California High-Speed Rail has tens of billions of dollars in-hand, but needs tens of billions more to connect northern and southern poles

Worker in a hardhat looks up at a new train bridge in progress.
The high speed rail viaduct under construction over the San Joaquin River near Fresno, California.
Phot AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

If backers of the ongoing plan to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles via bullet train can take consolation in anything, it’s that thus far nothing has managed to kill the project, from money woes to White House meddling to our governor seemingly (but not really) cancelling the whole shebang via a slip of the tongue.

Last week, the California High Speed Rail Authority, the public body overseeing the construction of High-Speed Rail (HSR) that state voters approved in 2008, released its latest annual draft business plan, laying out how it will continue funding and operating its construction, a transportation feat that will take more than a decade to complete.

Someday the authority hopes to have bullet trains running from Sacramento to San Diego. But for now, all the real work focuses on “phase one,” the SF-to-LA corridor. And even that is biting off more than enough to chew, according to the new draft plan. Here are a few key takeaways.

  • The good news is that costs have not significantly changed since last year: The authority still estimates a likely “base” cost of $80.3 billion (up slightly from $79.1 billion), with the worst-case scenario of $98 billion down a bit since 2019, and the pie-in-the-sky happy projection of $63.2 billion exactly the same. Voters originally approved a $45 billion plan in 2008—which comes out to roughly $55 billion in modern currency.
  • Right now the budget until 2030 runs as high as $23.4 billion. “While this amount of funding is considerable, it is not enough to build the entirety” of the SF-to-LA connection, says project CEO Brian Kelly. So far, the bullet train project has spent about $6.2 billion.
  • The only big milestone that Bay Area commuters will see in the near future for the larger project is that the state hopes to get the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) clearances for the region’s rail connection cleared up within the next two years. The major construction being done in the Bay Area is the ongoing Caltrain electrification, which will eventually allow HSR trains to use those tracks for the final stretch into San Francisco. However, this is a separate project that Caltrain would be undergoing anyway.
  • Despite hold-ups and political jockeying around the project, Kelly et al. are quick to promote the idea that construction is expanding, pointing out that there are now 30 active build sites in the Central Valley and that construction is up to “600 onsite workers per week.” In March of 2019, that same figure was just 217.

All of that work costs money, and the report refers to the present state as “a constrained funding environment” and promises “we will do what we can until additional funding is identified”—which doesn’t sound like a terribly encouraging tone.

Nevertheless, the draft puts forth some potential future moneymakers, including the eventuality of using fares from yet-to-be completed sections of the railway in the Central Valley. The most optimistic estimates put service five years away.

If the state extends the current cap-and-trade system to 2050, it could crank out up to $15 billion for high-speed rail.

Maybe the simplest solution is to “secure the remaining Proposition 1A construction funds at the appropriate time”—that is to say, collect on the rest of the nearly $10 billion that voters already approved that has yet to be appropriated. That still won’t pay the bills, though.

In a perhaps surprisingly sunny flight of fancy, the report dares to suggest that “the authority is well positioned to compete for future federal funds that are authorized for transportation infrastructure projects.”

This seems unlikely given that the state and the federal government have already fought over nearly $1 billion in federal funds that the feds say they want back. But the timeline of the project will outlast both the current and next presidential terms, so there are chances to get on better ground in the future.

The report also mentions, albeit fleetingly, that “for the first time we see the emergence of private-sector interest in electrified high-speed rail in California.”

This refers to a nearly $5 billion bullet train from Las Vegas to Southern California; it’s unrelated to California’s rail project, but suggests that HSR might hope to attract some kind of private investment down the line through something like a public-private partnership.

Although political opposition to the high-speed rail has enjoyed even less progress than the train itself in recent years—a 2018 drive for a voter initiative to cancel it crashed and burned without even qualifying for the ballot—some California policymakers would love to derail the whole thing.

After the release of last week’s plan, Assemblymember Jim Frazier, a Democrat from Fairfield and chair of the assembly’s transportation committee, blasted it as “a proposal for its future that it can’t afford and that won’t deliver what is promised.”