Almanac

News - November 9, 2011

Price tag for high-speed rail swells to $98.5 billion

by Gennady Sheyner and Sandy Brundage

The cost of California's high-speed-rail system, originally pegged at about $36 billion, has nearly tripled since the project was presented to voters in 2008, according to a business plan released Nov. 2.

The estimated price for the rail line, which would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles, now stands at $98.5 billion, and could reach $118 billion, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) concluded.

Those numbers exceed the rail authority's earlier estimates, and projections from rail watchdogs and the state Legislative Analyst's Office, which expected the price tag to exceed $60 billion. The 230-page document supplements the rail authority's 2009 business plan, panned by state legislators and nonpartisan analysts as incomplete and optimistic.

Although the CHSRA's ridership and revenue projections got more conservative, the biggest change is the cost. Changes in California's landscape during the last decade caused the price hike, the authority argues. The state added almost 5 million people between 2000 and 2010, the plan states, and previously vacant land has developed into "bustling communities, suburbs and roadways."

In addition, the timeline for completion was extended by 13 years — to 2033 — adding $27.5 billion in inflation costs and $16 billion in contingencies, the report states.

To justify the price tag, CHSRA asserts that other transportation infrastructure — including 2,300 miles of new highway lanes and airport improvements needed over the next 20 years — would cost more than $170 billion.

The plan calls a phased approach, paid through public investment upfront and private investment later, "the prudent course to build a foundation that allows for greater efficiency in the use or private investment once the initial segments of the system are in place."

'Blended system'

The revised plan incorporates some elements of a proposal by U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, for a "blended system" that uses Caltrain tracks for high-speed rail on the Peninsula.

The business plan integrates high-speed rail and Caltrain. Initially, after the "Bay to Basin" system is completed, ending in San Jose, passengers would hop onto Caltrain to finish the trip. After a later segment to San Francisco is done, passengers would have a "one-seat ride" without needing to change trains.

Train coming

"I think the implications are that the project is still moving ahead, the (aerial tracks) are still on the table, there is little to help residents understand impacts, and it will cost much more," commented Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, who serves on the Peninsula Cities Consortium. The group of representatives from Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Burlingame and Belmont, has alleged that the authority focuses more on meeting deadlines for federal-stimulus funding than on building a system that works.

See tinyurl.com/HSR-346 for an expanded story online.

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