SACRAMENTO (AP) – In the battle for the Californian high-speed rail project, a new and fundamental debate has flared up that could once again significantly reduce the problematic efforts: Should the trains even have high-speed trains at the start of the system?
This is a conversation the Democrats want to have in the State Assembly as they negotiate about $ 4 billion in loan money to be released for the project. The California High-Speed Rail Authority said they need that money to continue construction beyond next summer. Democratic governor Gavin Newsom put it in his state budget, but negotiations between his government and the legislature have stalled. They hope to find an agreement when the legislature returns to session in January.
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It’s the most recent setback for the project, which originally cost $ 33 billion and was supposed to be completed last year. Today, the vision of getting passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours is a distant dream. The first leg of the drivable route connecting two Central Valley cities won’t start before 2029, and the cost of the project has soared to $ 98 billion.
There seems to be little political will either to end the project entirely or to give it more resources so that construction can continue without a long-term plan.
At the center of the recent dispute is how soon the line will be electrified, which rail officials believe is a necessity to get the train up to high speed – the whole idea of the project that voters were sold for. They want to sign a contract for a company next year to design and build an electrified line and facility and maintain it for 30 years to effectively secure the state in the long term.
Current plans envisage that the first drivable stage will lead from Bakersfield to Merced, where passengers can ideally board another transit line in order to get to the San Francisco Bay Area via detours. Rail officials and local transit companies are planning a partnership to build a single station in Merced where passengers can get off the bullet train and board another system, but the construction is not fully funded.
This has led the Democratic MP Laura Friedman, chairman of the transport committee and negotiator for financing, to the question of whether it makes sense to fully electrify the route immediately. She believes the agency’s money could better be used to make sure there was a single station at Merced. That would ensure that passengers could get to the job hubs on the coast from the Central Valley, even if it was a diesel train. Overheard electrification could be finished later when there is more money.
“I’m not saying this is an optimal solution, but I think people need to be honest about what we have the money for,” Friedman said.
Bullet train officials and advocates say running less than one electrified train is against what voters advocated and would not bring the clean energy benefits.
“How does this show that you have made a good investment in infrastructure if you continue to run the same equipment as you do today at relatively similar speeds?” Said Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, Altamont Corridor Express and San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, all of which work with high speed rail.
The $ 4.2 billion in bond money rail officials seek to access are the last of the $ 10 billion fund voters created in 2008, and some lawmakers are reluctant to give them away all at once.
Friedman has proposed releasing $ 2.5 billion now and requiring rail officials to come back for approval before signing a track and systems contract.
She wants more money for the bullet train, although her proposal didn’t say how much, for projects in the Los Angeles area she represents. The state Senate has not shared any spending proposals.
Newsom’s government wants electrification.
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“We believe that the time of the slow, diesel-emitting rail is over, and we continue to advocate a future of transportation that moves people quickly and does so without further polluting our environment,” said spokesman Daniel Lopez in a statement.
How to approach borrowing money and what conditions to attach marks a critical decision point for the future of the project, said Lou Thompson, chairman of the rail project’s peer review group, which is independently evaluating the funding plans.
“If we build the whole system the way the voting initiative requires, then a high-speed line from Bakersfield to Merced is a perfectly valid part of the system,” he said. “If we don’t complete the system, you would think long and hard about just electrifying the line from Merced to Bakersfield.”
The ambitious project has been closely monitored nationwide to test whether the United States can get away from its car culture and catch up with other nations on high-speed travel. Proponents say the completed project would radically change the way people travel while reducing carbon emissions. Critics say it’s a taxpayer-funded boondoggle.
“The idea of the high-speed railroad got a little toxic with the California project,” says Ethan Elkind, an expert on transit projects at the University of California, Berkeley.
In a way, the project was thwarted when voters were presented with a low cost estimate for the project. Later, President Barack Obama’s administration made federal funds conditional on construction starting in the Central Valley, he said.
Elkind said the project is still viable, but if it’s not electrified, California can compete for money if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes tens of billions of dollars for rail projects.
“The federal government will say, ‘Look, California has moved on from high-speed rail.’ That is the message it will send, ”he said.
The project has just reclaimed $ 1 billion in federal funds that President Donald Trump’s administration repealed, and the new contract specifically mentions an electrified train. Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein called on lawmakers in July to release the bond funds, especially if new federal dollars are at stake.
“Now is not the time for California to step back from its commitment to high-speed transportation,” they warned.
The project has already spent $ 2.5 billion in federal funds and received more than $ 3.7 billion from California’s emissions allowance auction program known as cap-and-trade. This program is scheduled to expire in 2030.
Electrified or not, the project is still tens of billions of dollars missing – one reason rail officials are citing the construction of the project in pieces.
“We don’t have that much money and we never have,” said Melissa Figueroa, spokeswoman for the railway authority.
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