By Tim Sheehan, January 3, 2015
The California High-Speed Rail Authority expects that millions among
the traveling public will want to ride its sleek, 220-mph bullet trains
between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin when the system starts
running in the early 2020s.
But Tuesday’s ceremonial
groundbreaking in Fresno for the controversial rail project — considered
one of the largest public works efforts in California history — will be
an invitation-only affair for about 1,200 dignitaries and guests. The
festivities are set for noon at the northeast corner of Tulare and G
streets, the site of a planned high-speed train station in downtown
Among those scoring an invite is Gov. Jerry Brown, who
will attend the event just a day after he is sworn in for a fourth term
as part of a busy inauguration week.
The formalities represent a
symbolic milestone for the rail authority, and one that comes more than
two years after what was once targeted for the start of construction.
California voters approved Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed
rail bond act, in November 2008. In 2010, when the Federal Railroad
Administration announced that the Obama administration was pledging more
than $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation money to
California’s high-speed train project (to be matched with money from
Prop. 1A), officials touted a schedule that called for construction to
commence in September 2012.
The fall of 2012 came and went while
the rail authority was seeking bids for companies to design and build
the first construction segment of the statewide system, a 29-mile
stretch from the northeast edge of Madera to the southern fringe of
Fresno. A consortium of contractors, Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons,
submitted the low bid of about $1 billion in early 2013; a contract with
the team was inked in August 2013.
The bidding process wasn’t the
only thing that stalled the schedule. The rail authority and the state
have been targeted by a smattering of lawsuits challenging various
aspects of the project, from the adequacy of environmental analyses for
the Madera-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield segments of the route to
whether Prop. 1A bonds could be sold to finance construction, from
challenges of a 2011 draft financing plan to whether the rail system in
its current proposed incarnation will be able to fulfill Prop. 1A
requirements for a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40
minutes or be able to operate only on its self-sustaining income without
any public subsidy.
It has also taken longer than expected for
the rail authority to acquire the property it needs and to string
together enough parcels to accommodate major construction. Engineers
with Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons began work on designing the route soon
after their contract was signed in mid-2013. But it wasn’t until last
July that subcontractors were able to begin clearing parcels and
demolishing buildings along the route. As of mid-December, the rail
authority owns 101 of the 525 pieces of property needed for the
Madera-Fresno segment. It also needs 539 parcels for its second
construction segment, about 65 miles from the south edge of Fresno to
the Tulare-Kern county line.
What hasn’t changed since the federal
grants began flowing four years ago is a Sept. 30, 2017, deadline for
substantial completion of the rail sections in the San Joaquin Valley.
That’s the date by which the state rail authority must spend its federal
money. The rail authority has about $6 billion — a combination of the
federal funds and matching Prop. 1A money — available to build the
backbone of its system from Merced to Bakersfield. That’s a little under
20% of the $31 billion that it’s expected to cost to build the first
operational segment between Merced and Burbank by the early 2020s. It’s
also less than 10% of the anticipated $68 billion cost to build the
520-mile Phase 1 system from San Francisco to Los Angeles by the late
Despite the downtown Fresno setting for Tuesday’s ceremony,
the first major construction on the Madera-Fresno segment is
anticipated to be at the eastern edge of Madera, where an elevated
bridge will be built to span the Fresno River, Highway 145 and Raymond
Road just west of the existing BNSF Railway freight tracks. Downtown
Fresno is expected to be the site of some other early work, including
relocation of utilities to make way for construction.