CA: High-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Jose wins approval. What happens next?

FRESNO, Calif. — Following concerns from two Bay Area cities, the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority’s board of directors has finalized its choice of an alternate route for approximately 49 miles of track between San Francisco and San José.

Thursday’s actions included certifying thousands of pages of environmental analysis for the stretch, in which high-speed trains will eventually share an upgraded, electrified rail corridor with Caltrain passenger train service on the San Francisco Peninsula.

The 8-0 vote (with one board member absent) took place in a meeting held by teleconference among rail authority board members scattered across the state.

It represents the final step in providing environmental clearance for a statewide system that is expected to eventually connect San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim via the San Joaquin Valley, with electric trains carrying passengers to speeds of up to 220 mph.

“Today is truly a momentous event, with an enormous amount of work behind it to get to where we are today with an environmentally cleansed project from the Bay Area through the Central Valley,” said Tom Richards. , a Fresno developer and chairman of the board. after the vote. “If nothing else, what he’s doing is preparing and moving this whole project towards construction.”

Brian Kelly, chief executive of the railroad agency, said certification of the San Francisco-San Jose corridor means the agency has now completed and certified its environmental analyzes for all but two sections of the San Francisco-Los Angeles system. 500 mile Anaheim.

The only clearance gaps are a 38-mile segment between the city of Palmdale in the Mojave Desert and the community of Burbank in the San Fernando Valley, and a stretch from downtown Los Angeles to Anaheim.

“A lot of people lost sight of this project being about San Francisco in Los Angeles,” Kelly told The Fresno Bee after the vote. “With today’s environmental document certified by our Board of Directors, we have now licensed San Francisco into Los Angeles County.”

“It really reflects what we’re trying to do: start service in the (San Joaquin Valley) where construction is underway, and we’re trying to move this full Phase 1 system from San Francisco to Los Angeles,” said Kelly added. . “By doing this, we can now begin to design these other segments as we move operations forward in the valley. We can move the design forward, start talking about acquiring the right of way, and figure out the rest of the San Francisco-LA project.

Concerns raised during the meeting

During public comments on the environmental scan on Wednesday, officials from the town of Millbrae, south of San Francisco, expressed concern about aspects of the plans.

They claimed the documents did not fully consider the effects the high-speed rail project and potential station locations could have on the city’s development plans near its transit station which is shared by both Caltrain commuter trains and BART trains that connect communities across the bay. Area.

In response, high-speed rail authority staff noted that the environmental documents do not represent a final design for the stations. They are committed to working with local officials in the Town of Millbrae on future plans for BART/Caltrain station sharing and expansion.

They also said they would work with officials in nearby Brisbane on plans for a maintenance facility near a former landfill along the east side of the Caltrain Corridor.

Improvements to the Caltrain line to accommodate high-speed trains will include separate level crossings, while other routes will have improved crossing barriers to prevent drivers from driving around the barriers as trains approach.

Gary Kennerley, director of Northern California projects for the railroad agency, said those features, along with the installation of overhead electrical systems to replace Caltrain’s current fleet of diesel-powered trains, should enable high-speed trains speed to operate at speeds of up to 110 mph, an increase of approximately 30 mph over current speeds on the Peninsula Corridor.

Earlier this year, the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority’s board of directors approved a route from San Jose to Merced; a segment from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles was approved last year.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the railroad agency currently has three stretches of construction underway between the north end of Madera and the community of Shafter in Kern County – a 119-mile stretch that will include a downtown station. from Fresno but stops before future station sites in downtown Merced and North Central Bakersfield.

The railroad agency certified environmental reports a decade ago for its Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections. But it took years for the authority to settle disputes with towns such as Chowchilla and Bakersfield over specific route options to reach north to Merced and south to Bakersfield.

This prompted additional environmental reviews for new alternatives to bypass the route around the town of Chowchilla and to create a route from Shafter that enters Bakersfield from the north instead of the west.

Top priorities moving forward

On Wednesday, the railroad agency’s board approved two contracts totaling about $86 million to begin preliminary design work for extensions of the Valley route to Merced and Bakersfield, planned as a system of interim operation of 171 miles where high-speed trains are expected to operate by 2030. .

“The top priority is to get Merced-to-Bakersfield done,” Kelly told The Bee. “But at the same time, I would say, because the overall project is still about San Francisco to Los Angeles, getting these environmental documents done will help us move the work forward everywhere.”

The latest construction cost estimates for the 171-mile Merced-Bakersfield stretch range from $22.5 billion to $23.9 billion.

Additional construction to extend the system beyond the San Joaquin Valley – north and west to Gilroy, San Jose and San Francisco, and south and east to Palmdale, Los Angeles and Anaheim – will likely cost billions more than California doesn’t.

For a full San Francisco-Los Angeles/Anaheim system, the railroad agency estimated earlier this year that costs could range from $72.3 billion to $105.1 billion. Much of this wide variation stems from the uncertainty of the cost of tunneling through the mountain ranges, as well as the price of property that would be required before construction could begin.

Kelly said more money in the near term could speed work along the Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield route and provide a springboard for expanding the system statewide.

The California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority has pending requests from federal transportation officials for about $1.3 billion under the bipartisan infrastructure act. The money would not only help pay for the extension of the current 119 miles of construction in Merced and Bakersfield, Kelly said, but also allow for the construction of two sets of dedicated high-speed rail tracks through the valley instead of one.

But achieving a greener segment of the statewide system can help the agency raise more money to do more work beyond the valley, he added.

“It’s much better to have a conversation about funding and money when you can show that you’ve come a long way,” Kelly said. “I can start talking about the need to design and get the right of way in those other places. It’s so much easier to have that dialogue when you’ve already completed the environmental work.

Kelly added that a draft environmental analysis for the Palmdale-Burbank road segment is expected to be released in September. A contract for the installation of track, electrical and safety/signalling systems on the Merced-Bakersfield section is expected to be submitted to the authority’s board later this year.

Plans call for a contract to be awarded by October to design high-speed rail stations in Fresno, Merced, Hanford and Bakersfield. “And next year, in 2023, we’re going to talk about ordering trains,” Kelly said.

Process full of pitfalls

The job was not smooth. The first construction contracts for the route in the Valley were awarded in 2013.

The agency is struggling to buy or secure all the real estate it needs for construction and right-of-way in the area, and hundreds of utility systems still need to be moved along the road. Schedule delays and cost increases also hurt the project.

Still, Kelly said he believes work in the valley will be “essentially complete” between 2023 and 2025. He and Richards were optimistic that Thursday’s vote on the San Francisco-San Jose segment represents momentum for the entire railway project.

“It’s really about showing the ability to deliver,” Kelly told The Bee. “My belief is that as we demonstrate this (with environmental clearances), future conversations about funding will be easier. …People are going to start seeing, smelling, touching and tasting that a little more.

“Today is extremely important to the project,” Richards said after the vote. “Of those of us in the Central Valley and the Bay Area, we would only say in Southern California, ‘We’re coming.'”

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©2022 The Fresno Bee. Go to fresnobee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Jose P. Rogers