YOUTUBE VIDEO In a breakthrough for the country’s most expensive public infrastructure project, California’s bullet train finally appears to have the money and the legal approval to complete its first leg. What remains a challenge is how to link that initial 171-mile route through the state’s Central Valley agricultural heartland to population centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose—and how its designers will overcome California’s mountainous terrain and seismic risks.
State legislators agreed last month to release $4.2 billion earmarked for the train’s first phase, between midsize cities Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced. The project may also benefit from more than $2 billion of federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds set aside for passenger rail. Extending service to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles would boost the amount of track to 500 miles and the train’s total price tag to as much as $105 billion. That’s far above an initial estimate of about $40 billion when California voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to help build it in 2008.
“It’s not an easy task to build a system like this,” said Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “It’s a tough slog, but it’s one worth doing.”
Four years ago, the state tapped Kelly, a veteran transportation official, to get matters back on track after early management blunders threatened public support. Legal challenges and securing all the land needed to build even the first, relatively flat phase were also priorities. Today, 119 miles of concrete, bridgelike viaducts and other structures on which electric trains will someday run at over 200 mph are being built—bringing temporary headaches to downtown Fresno—with new work poised to begin on the remaining 52 miles that are now funded. Critically, Kelly and his team have also secured more than 90% of the land needed to keep construction on track.
The project “is alive and well and creating employment opportunities for thousands of workers who are engaged in the most innovative and transformative project our nation has seen in almost 75 years,” said Karen Philbrick, executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute. “The legislative support to advance an electrified HSR segment between Merced and Bakersfield is incredibly meaningful.”