With Release of New Business Plan, is High Speed Rail in California on the Right Track?

The California High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) released its most recent business plan this morning during a press conference held at the Sacramento Railroad museum. The business plan, which reassesses the costs of the proposal and provides updated ridership numbers, is the first to be released under the direction of Roelof van Ark, who became Chief Executive Officer of the Authority in June 2010. When voters approved the initiative to allocate $9.95 billion towards the project in 2008, the cost of the system was estimated at $43 billion. With the release of the newest business plan, the projected cost to build the first segment- from San Francisco to Anaheim- has now skyrocketed to $98.5 billion after the Authority “looked more deeply at engineering costs”. 

Questions of how to afford the project were raised during the question and answer portion of the press conference as many noted that the original $9.95 billion given through the 2008 ballot initiative is now only one tenth of the funding needed. The plan assumes that nearly 20 percent of the total cost will come from private investment, leaving the majority of the investment coming from public borrowing. California has received approximately $3.5 billion from the federal government after states like Florida gave back their high speed rail funding, which helps defray costs to California taxpayers. However, money set aside in the federal budget for high speed rail (HSR) was cut entirely this year, and many speculate whether California will actually receive the funding necessary to create a true HSR system in California and not just a “train to nowhere”. 

The Planning and Conservation League (PCL) supports high speed rail if it reduces reliance on highways and air traffic, is linked with urban rail projects to promote infill development and discourage sprawl, is properly financed, and is sited to maximize environmental and ridership benefits without causing unacceptable impacts to local communities, farm and ranch lands, or natural resources. With the release of this plan, PCL will be using the 60-day comment period to assess whether this iteration moves us in the direction of an HSR project in California that is feasible and will safeguard our environment while providing critical jobs for Californians. One of Governor Brown’s two appointees on the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Michael Rossi, indicated at the press event that he welcomes a vigorous debate and dialogue over the next 60 days to help better the project. To this end, PCL has already met with Mr. van Ark and others at the HSRA to hear about their future plans and voice our concerns, and plan to continue our discussions with leaders on this project.

Also speaking at the press event was Brown’s other recent appointee, Dan Richard, who stressed that, “This is not a promotional document. This is not a political document. This is a business plan.” Now that the Governor has put his stamp on the largest infrastructure project the state of California has ever seen, it is only a matter of time before we see whether the most recent projections outlined in the business plan are accurate and whether this project will move forward.