California approves bullet train line from Central Valley to SF

Plans for a high-speed rail line that could take passengers from the Central Valley to downtown San Francisco took a big step forward this week when railroad officials approved the 43-mile extension. miles.

California’s High-Speed ​​Rail Authority board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to approve a preferred route and environmental clearance for the segment that would carry fast trains from San Jose to the city by sharing the electrified track with Caltrain commuter trains.

The line could be put into service as early as 2033, projects the authority. Stations are planned for San Francisco/Millbrae International Airport and the Caltrain Mission Bay station at Fourth and King streets, which would eventually be replaced by a station in the basement of the Salesforce Transit Center.

Major obstacles to the project remain. For starters, California didn’t figure out where it would get up to $25 billion needed to build the San Francisco and Silicon Valley high-speed rail extensions.

Nevertheless, the approval of the project’s final branch north into the heart of the Bay Area is an important milestone. It’s also the latest in a string of victories for high-speed rail in recent months, a reprieve from years of spiraling costs and litigation that has prompted some Democratic lawmakers to consider pulling the plug.

Earlier this spring, the Rail Authority’s board approved the 90-mile segment of the train to connect Silicon Valley with Merced in the Central Valley – construction has been underway in the Central Valley for about seven years.

Then state lawmakers agreed in June to release $4.2 billion in bonds to complete construction of the project’s Central Valley line, ending a years-long standoff that has been largely fueled by the anger over California’s decision to build the train out of the Central Valley first, rather than inland from Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Brian Kelly, CEO of the Rail Authority, said all of these developments together show the authority is doing what it has promised to do for years: Building the most financially feasible segment of the train first while continuing to progress on the extensions of the most important of the State. populated coastal regions.

“There’s a realization, a reality, that the building started where it started,” he told The Chronicle. “The thing is, the feds gave us some money to start in the Central Valley.”

Originally, the Rail Authority planned to build tracks to the interior of Los Angeles and the Bay Area, including lines going east to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Governor Gavin Newsom stunned many lawmakers and rail advocates in 2019 when he announced he would focus on the Central Valley line first mainly due to rising costs.

The Rail Authority’s push to approve plans and environmental clearance for the Bay Area and LA expansions is, in part, designed to assure voters the project remains statewide. within its reach.

State Assembly Democrats, led by the powerful LA delegation, had pushed for years to take some of the $4.2 billion in bond funds for the Central Valley line and instead spend it on regional sweating projects in major metropolitan areas that could eventually connect with high-speed rail.

But that standoff ended in June, when the rail authority emerged with its bond funding intact, although its operations were overseen by a new inspector general. Lawmakers also abandoned efforts to cut costs by using diesel-powered trains, rather than electrified tracks, in the Central Valley.

Kelly, who led the authority for 4.5 years, said for the first time in a long time he felt the high-speed train was making meaningful progress, rather than just fighting for its political survival and financial.

“We went from a conversation of ‘What are we going to do?’ to ‘Let’s go,’ he said. “We’ve taken a bit of a leap with this budget deal.”

California voters approved $9.95 billion bond financing for the high-speed rail in 2008, with the promise that the money would be used to help build a 220mph train to ferry passengers between major cities. parts of the state in less than three hours.

But the project has been ridiculed for repeated construction delays and spiraling costs, with its total budget dropping from $33 billion to at least $105 billion in the Rail Authority’s latest business plan – and potentially several billion more when the authority factors in recent inflation in its estimates.

Trains were also expected to start running in 2020. Now, the agency does not expect the first trains to start running in the Central Valley until 2029, followed by Silicon Valley in 2031.

Construction crews work on the Central Valley segment of the high-speed rail line in Fresno, California on September 23, 2021.

Peter DaSilva / Special at The Chronicle

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat from the Los Angles area who chairs the transportation committee, is among lawmakers who remain skeptical of the direction of the train’s Central Valley segment. She said she was delighted to see an inspector general created to “ensure accountability and transparency”.

Friedman said she was concerned the Rail Authority did not have a viable plan to bring enough passengers to the Central Valley segment when completed, as there was no clear and immediate way to connect with passengers. of the Bay Area.

“For this to be successful, I think it has to be connected to places where people want to go,” she said. “Hopefully the money they have left is enough to get them something that’s a viable system with a connection in the Bay Area.”

The bond funding the Legislature approved this summer mirrors the remainder of voter-approved project funding and is expected to run out by the time construction is complete on the first 171-mile stretch from Merced to Bakersfield.

That means the Rail Authority would likely ask the federal government and California voters to approve funding for the project’s next construction phases, with its Silicon Valley and San Francisco segments.

In that sense, the Rail Authority’s board approval of the San Francisco segment this week was a major boost for rail supporters, who are still struggling to repair the public image of the project at the following dissatisfaction with the Central Valley approach.

“The more real we can make it for people, the more it helps in that conversation,” said Boris Lipkin, the authority’s regional director for Northern California. “Some of the best things we can do is show that progress.”

The planning approval in the Bay Area is also a symbolic victory for rail supporters, who have long argued the project would help reduce the inequities between the Central Valley and the state’s rich coastal areas. Proponents of the project have touted the high-speed rail as a way to connect the state’s low-income interior and its affordable housing to well-paying jobs on the prosperous coast.

The San Francisco segment of the project would share the track with Caltrain’s slower commuter trains, so trains could run from Diridon Station in San Jose to the peninsula in the city without laying new tracks.

Railway officials had previously considered building a separate high-speed rail corridor on the peninsula, but that effort was scrapped years ago due to opposition from property owners in the affluent area.

Caltrain is currently working to electrify its system and has received approximately $700 million from the Rail Authority for this effort. Its commuter trains run at 79mph, but the system could share the track with faster trains, which would run at 110mph in the area, thanks to a series of existing passing lanes.

In other parts of the state, the bullet train is expected to run faster, approaching speeds of up to 220 mph in the Central Valley.

The San Francisco segment would be part of the 500-mile Phase 1 high-speed train, which ultimately aims to move passengers from San Francisco to Anaheim. With the approval of the San Francisco extension, 420 miles of this first phase have been environmentally cleared, allowing rail authorities to begin advanced design work.

Rail authority officials hope the project can maintain its recent momentum as it seeks an additional $8 billion in federal grants. The Biden administration has set aside tens of billions of dollars for new rail projects.

Still, the bill faces critics who say it strays too far from the system approved by state voters in 2008. Quentin Kopp, a retired state senator and former board chairman of the Rail Authority, scoffed at the idea of ​​high-speed trains running through downtown San Francisco.

“It’s called much ado about nothing,” he said. “This is for the mess graveyard now.”

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