California budget sends $4.2 billion to high-speed rail, creates new inspector general

After squabbling over the future of California’s high-speed rail, state lawmakers plan to release a critical batch of cash to complete a high-speed train in the Central Valley while establishing an inspector general to audit the embattled project and authorize billions of dollars in new money for rail plans across the state.

The agreement, included in a budget trailer bill which passed the Legislature on Wednesday evening and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday, ends a more than year-long stalemate in Sacramento over how to spend the last chunk of $4.2 billion in high-speed rail bond funds, which voters approved in 2008. Gov. Gavin Newsom wanted to move forward with laying lanes in Central Valley farmland and ultimately connecting Bakersfield to Merced, but key Democratic lawmakers lambasted the Central Valley link and sought to redirect transit funds closer to their constituents in urban centres.

California’s unprecedented $97.5 billion budget surplus allowed the state to do both. The budget nearly solidifies the 171-mile Central Valley Link – which is now expected to see high-speed rail around 2030. It also increases state funding for rail plans to $3.65 billion this year, which which could potentially send money to financially-struggling Bay Area projects such as Caltrain electrification and BART in downtown San Jose. An additional $4 billion is planned for transit infrastructure through 2025, although that money has yet to be allocated.

“We released the $4.2 billion, but we also got $3.65 billion in this year’s budget as a result of the compromise,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, one of the main critics of the Central Valley segment, in an interview.

As part of the deal, lawmakers created an independent inspector general’s office with sweeping powers to audit the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority, which has seen its cost estimates skyrocket in recent years. The inspector general will be appointed by the governor from a shortlist of candidates selected by a legislative committee.

“They know that with the inspector general, they are going to be watched,” Rendon added. “They are going to be held accountable.”

Still, the squabble over the high-speed rail during a record budget surplus doesn’t bode well for the prospects of a high-speed rail zipping from San Francisco to Los Angeles in decades to come, said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley. Law School.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation sum of money that was just handed over to the governor,” Elkind said. “And all that (the high-speed train) has is what they already had in 2008.”

When voters gave the green light to the project in 2008, they were promised a two-hour, forty-minute trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with connections to Sacramento and San Diego at a cost of $45 billion. Since then, the estimated price has more than doubled to $113 billion, and that’s for a stripped-down version that doesn’t include the Sacramento and San Diego stops.

The high-speed rail has no funding to build a high-speed rail beyond the Central Valley section at a cost of $23.8 billion. Even with the bonds released in the latest budget and the revenue it receives from California’s cap-and-trade program, this segment will likely need more money to cross the finish line due to overruns. drastic costs and inflation.

State transit agencies watched negotiations in Sacramento anxiously as last year’s budget tied billions of dollars for other transit projects in the state to an agreement on the high-speed train. Since lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement with the governor, rail and bus operators were left without new money despite the massive surplus.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Rebecca Long, legislative chief for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, an umbrella group that oversees transit funding in the Bay Area. “Last year that deal didn’t happen, so the money pretty much evaporated,” she said.

Still, Long said the Northern California transit didn’t get everything it wanted. The budget doesn’t include any specific exclusions for Bay Area transit agencies, so BART, Caltrain and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority are all vying for a piece of the pie on their underfunded rail projects. About $300 million is for rail infrastructure in San Diego County, where Senate Leader Toni Atkins’ district is located.

“There’s no doubt that Southern California had more leverage in this negotiation because more Southern California members weren’t comfortable with high-speed rail,” Long said.

One of the projects likely to capture some public funds is Caltrain’s delayed electrification project. There are plans to replace its noisy diesel trains in 2024 with sleek electric ones if the agency can find $410 million to fill its funding gap. A bill guaranteeing $260 million for the project was defeated in negotiations, but supporters remain hopeful.

“This money is going to keep us on track to do something that will be California’s first electrified commuter railroad,” said Casey Fromson, who led Caltrain’s efforts to secure state funding. . “We are so close to the finish line.”

Jose P. Rogers