California high-speed rail: Building a faster train faster

Courtesy California High Speed Rail Authority

California’s High Speed Rail Authority is expected to release a final business plan this week. On April 5, state lawmakers will discuss whether to approve $2.7 billion in bonds for a bullet train. When it’s up and running, the train will zip riders from Anaheim to San Francisco in just a couple hours. Lawmakers balked at the earlier draft plan, its price tag of $100 billion and the decision to build the first phase in the Central Valley.

But at a town-hall hearing in Silicon Valley this month, the High Speed Rail Authority’s new chairman Dan Richard told lawmakers that the project’s revised business plan solves one of the project’s biggest problems.

“It really was taking too long before anybody really saw any trains,” Richard said. “We were looking at a situation where it was going to be 10 years before anybody saw a high-speed rail train in California.”

Under the revised plan, bullet trains could be running a lot sooner in Southern California and in the San Francisco Bay area. The idea—called a “blended approach” — is to upgrade tracks already in use by freight trains and commuter rail systems so they can handle bullet trains, too.

“I believe it is the way to move forward,” says Hasan Ikhrata the executive director, Southern California Association of Governments, one of nine regional agencies working to get $1 billion high-speed rail money invested in the region’s rail systems.

A “blended approach” deal is in the works for Northern California, too, but critics question whether all this is legal. California voters authorized up to $9 billion in state bond money to break ground on a high-speed rail system but the ballot measure, Proposition 1-A also sets limits on how that money gets spent. Ikhrata says it’s not clear whether the measure allows project managers to use high-speed rail bond money to fix up local rails but he says he thinks Californians ultimately will support the “blended approach.”

“When you’re given a choice that for $1 billion in the south and $1 billion in north, I could upgrade your system to go 110 miles per an hour — call it “Phase 1 high speed rail” — why would anyone disagree?" Ikhrata said.

The High Speed Rail Authority says its revised business plan will also cost less than $100 billion. Part of the savings will come from the “blended approach.” That’s because it costs a lot less to upgrade rails already there than to lay down brand new ones. The High Speed Rail Authority still plans to start building the bullet train system in California’s Central Valley, but the idea is to get money for upgrades to regional rail systems within a year or so.

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