Synopsis of California High-Speed Rail

Synopsis of California High-Speed Rail

In November 2008, 53% of California voters chose to vote YES on Proposition 1A, the “Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century.” It was a big step from the limited planning and environmental review done by the California High-Speed Rail Authority from 1996 to 2008. Proposition 1A remains state law today. What did it say?

Where the Train Will Go (Service Areas)

Proposition 1A was meant to “initiate the construction of a high-speed train system that connects the San Francisco Transbay Terminal to Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim, and links the state’s major population centers, including Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Orange County, and San Diego.” There cannot be more than a total of 24 stations in the system along these routes. Routes for the high-speed train system are to follow existing transportation or utility corridors to the extent feasible, in order to reduce impacts on communities and the environment. The Official Voter Guide for Proposition 1A did not include a map of the proposed routes, and some voters assumed the train would run parallel to Interstate 5 through the Central Valley rather than winding through rural farmland.

As of 2016, the California High Speed Rail Authority claimed the part between San Francisco and Los Angeles (Phase 1) would be finished in 2029. There are no dates set for start or completion of the parts between Los Angeles and San Diego and between Merced and Sacramento (Phase 2).

Travel Times

Each train must be capable of arriving at a station within five minutes of the last train’s departure. The train system must be designed and constructed to achieve these nonstop service travel times:

Station 1 Station 2 Time
San Francisco Los Angeles Union Station 2 hours 40 minutes
Oakland Los Angeles Union Station 2 hours 40 minutes
San Francisco San Jose 30 minutes
San Jose Los Angeles 2 hours, 10 minutes
San Diego Los Angeles 1 hour, 20 minutes
Inland Empire Los Angeles 30 minutes
Sacramento Los Angeles 2 hours, 20 minutes

Estimated Cost to Build the System and Phase 1 (Between Downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles Union Station/Anaheim)

In the Voter Guide for Proposition 1A, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office noted a 2006 estimate from the California High-Speed Rail Authority that the total cost to develop and construct the entire high-speed train system would be about $45 billion. In 2011, a preliminary Business Plan stated that Phase 1 (between the downtowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles) would cost $98 billion. Having Phase 1 only go from San Jose to Los Angeles and having the high-speed trains share track with commuter rail (Caltrain and Metrolink), the California High-Speed Rail Authority unilaterally reset its estimated costs for Phase 1 at $68 billion, $67 billion, and the present $62.1 billion.

Speed of Trains

According to Proposition 1A, the system must accommodate “a passenger train capable of sustained revenue operating speeds of at least 200 miles per hour where conditions permit those speeds.” Each segment of the system must be able to operate “electric trains that are capable of sustained maximum revenue operating speeds of no less than 200 miles per hour.”

Borrowed State Funding for the System and “Connectivity Projects”

By approving Proposition 1A, California voters authorized the State of California to borrow $9.95 billion for the high-speed rail system. $9 billion would go directly to the California High-Speed Rail Authority to ‘match’ federal and/or private funds for the high-speed rail system. $995 million would go to regional and local transportation agencies to spend on “connectivity projects.”

To borrow the $9.95 billion, the California State Treasurer issues (sells) bonds to investors. The state then pays back the borrowed money to bond holders – with interest – over many years. The estimated total interest on the Proposition 1A bonds will cost $19.4 billion. The state has already sold bonds for the “connectivity projects,” which were specifically identified in a state law (SB1029) enacted in 2012 that determined where money would go.

Required Funding from Other Sources Besides Bonds

Ballot Argument California High Speed Rail Private Funding Required

From the 2008 Voter Guide for Proposition 1A.

By law, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is required to “pursue and obtain other private and public funds, including, but not limited to, federal funds, funds from revenue bonds, and local funds, to augment the proceeds” from the sale of the bonds authorized by Prop 1A.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) – the “stimulus package” that President Obama signed into law in 2009 – provided federal funding for the California High-Speed Rail Train System, as long as certain conditions are met. The federal funding commitment to California High-Speed Rail is $3,316,000,000 ($3.3 billion).

Contrary to the impression given by the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plans and press releases, there is still no commitment of private funding for the system.

Other Sources of Funding for Building the System

Since 2014, the state has provided most of its funding for California’s High-Speed Rail from “Cap-and-Trade” revenue obtained through auctions of allowances to produce greenhouse gases. Starting with the 2015–16 fiscal year, the state appropriates 25% of the annual proceeds of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Accountability to the People – Borrowed Money from Bond Sales

The California State Auditor will perform periodic audits of how the California High-Speed Rail Authority spends bond proceeds to ensure that money is not spent on unauthorized projects or activities.

At least 90 days before the Authority’s “initial request” to the Governor and Legislature for spending the bond proceeds for each corridor or usable segment, the Authority board of directors is required to submit a detailed funding plan to the Director of Finance, a Peer Review Group, and the Assembly and Senate transportation and budget committees. The plan must include “projected ridership and operating revenue estimate based on projected high-speed passenger train operations on the corridor or usable segment.”

No more than 2.5 percent of Proposition 1A proceeds shall be used for administrative purposes.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is required by a 2013 law to produce a Business Plan every two years containing specific information. It produced a Business Plan in 2014 and 2016.

State law established an independent Peer Review Group to evaluate and analyze the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s assumptions underlying its planning, engineering, and financial plan and its viability for a project in a corridor for which it is seeking bond funding.

A 2012 law required the California High-Speed Rail Authority to produce a report that analyzes the net impact of the high-speed rail program on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The first was released in 2013; but the Authority no longer needs to produce such reports.

California High-Speed Rail Through Kings County

The planned path of California High-Speed Rail through Kings County.

Why the San Joaquin Valley First?

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is required to “give priority to those corridors or usable segments thereof that are expected to require the least amount of bond funds as a percentage of total cost of construction.” The flat, rural agricultural regions of the San Joaquin Valley fulfilled this requirement, and most of the federal funding is restricted to final design and construction of the high-speed rail system in specific parts of the Central Valley.

Progress on California High-Speed Rail

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has awarded three contracts for civil construction (grading, bridges, etc.) for the Initial Construction Segment between Madera and Bakersfield. No contracts have been advertised for laying rail or electrification, safety signaling systems or rolling stock. Some demolition, viaduct construction, and bridge work has happened in the first 29 miles from Madera to Fresno covered by the first contract. Environmental review is at various stages of Phase 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Planning has begun for electrification of the Caltrain commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose, which California High-Speed Rail will share. The planned station in San Francisco (the Transbay Transit Center) is under construction by a separate agency.