Key California lawmakers have devised a plan to shift billions of dollars from the Central Valley bullet train to rail projects in SoCal and the Bay Area, a strategy that could crush the dreams of high-speed rail purists.
The move is a response to Gov. Newsom’s plan this year to direct all of the remaining bullet train funds into the San Joaquin Valley and build a partial high-speed system from Bakersfield to Merced at a cost of $20.5 billion. Assembly Democrats see greater public value in improving passenger rail from Burbank to Anaheim, relieving congestion on the busy Interstate 5 corridor before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and putting additional money into San Francisco commuter rail.
The proposal has been taken more seriously in recent weeks and supporters think it will meet the tricky legal requirements of the high-speed rail project. Over the last 6 years, state officials have promoted and then discarded different master plans to solve the bullet train’s financial, legal, and political problems.
There’s strong support for returning to a strategy the state abandoned a decade ago: building the bullet train towards the Central Valley from Los Angeles and San Francisco. The big urban areas have the largest population and worst highway congestion — meaning ridership, revenue, greenhouse gas reduction and political payoff are strongest at the ends, not the center. A change, of course, could help build long-term support for the train.
“It is not the end of high-speed rail, but a way to save it,” Rendon said, citing a growing lack of confidence with the current approach. Brian Kelly, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said other state agencies with some limited rail authority contributions are already investing $4.4 billion in rail over the coming years in SoCal.
The plan would curtail some of the planned construction in the Central Valley, completing only the 119 miles of rail line underway and eliminating extensions to Bakersfield and Merced, costing more than $4 Billion. The plan would also save money by delaying the installation of a high-voltage electric power system, meaning new 135-mph diesel trains would operate on the Central Valley bullet train network. All of those changes could theoretically raise $5 billion to $6 billion that would be reallocated to Metrolink in SoCal and Caltrain in the Bay Area.
Indeed, the Assembly members whom wield considerable political leverage because the Legislature must make a supplemental appropriation from the bond money for the project, either late this year or next year. When the vote is taken, legislators from Southern California will cast the majority of the votes, analysts say.
There is somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion in remaining bond funds, along with roughly $750 million a year that comes out of the rail project’s share of cap-and-trade fees from the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program. Supporters note Europe now operates battery-powered trains, eliminating the need for overhead wires that freight railroads don’t want installed on their tracks and potential for hydrogen-powered fuel cells is also advancing.
Metrolink carries about 1.8 million passengers annually between Anaheim and Burbank, but faster trains, more departures, and improved reliability could significantly increase that number.