Friday, March 11, 2016

What Do the Recent Developments Mean for California's High Speed Rail?

The California High Speed Rail has been making headlines lately, as certain developments and decisions have propelled it forward, while some ongoing hurdles still need to be overcome. This is after all a tremendous project which will most likely continue to face challenges even as construction work is executed. Many California residents have been and will be affected by the project, as it progresses through each stage. This will serve as an overview of where the project currently stands and what impacts we can expect to see from recent legal decisions as well as the work of the High Speed Rail Authority.  

The High Speed Rail Authority this week achieved an important victory when a Superior Court judge ruled in it’s favor in a lawsuit where opponents claimed current plans are in direct violation of the 2008 bond measure that set forth the parameters of the high speed rail project.

Although the overall sentiment regarding the high speed rail in California has been declining since voters approved the project in 2008,  it appears to have the backing of the state government as well as the courts. In the aforementioned case, plaintiffs claimed that because of significant changes and modifications,  the high speed rail in it’s current form has pivoted too far away from what voters approved in 2008. They argued that plans have been altered to such an extent that the project no longer aligned with  the initial cost, construction schedule, and the bullet train’s service once it’s built.   

In the 2008 bond act, important criteria were laid out for the building schedule of the various portions of the project, ultimately to span from Sacramento to San Diego, as well as the operation of the actual bullet train. Recent plans have the high speed rail sharing a track with a commuter train in Northern California, thereby increasing  expected travel time. Train service that fails to meet the required maximum travel time between certain points were specifically cited in the lawsuit. The judge however, stated in his ruling that nothing in the Bond Act precluded the High Speed Rail Authority from making changes that are necessary to facilitate the rail’s progress and that due to the dynamic nature of the project the Authority still has the opportunity to meet the Bond Act’s requirements.

At each step the high speed rail authority is re-evaluating and changing  plans, as unexpected challenges arise. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to  condemnation and land acquisition. In the San Joaquin Valley, the eminent domain process is taking much more time than anticipated. The process of negotiating with landowners, which can certainly be lengthy due to the complicated nature of eminent domain proceedings, is more protracted than the high speed rail authority counted on initially. Furthermore, as original plans for the rail have changed course, additional land acquisition has become necessary. According to the Fresno Bee, as of last month 668 properties of the 1,468 required for the project have been acquired by the High Speed Rail Authority.

The above-mentioned lawsuit held that a scenario where the High Speed Rail ran on the same tracks as a commuter train would be anathema to the service promised by the Bond Act.  It’s possible that the electrification of Caltrain, a commuter line that serves the Bay Area, could facilitate the construction of the High Speed Rail sooner in that region than expected.

Finally, a large engineering/infrastructure  corporation based in Spain, called Ferrovial, has cemented a deal to build a portion of the high speed rail located between Fresno and Bakersfield. Ferrovial will be carrying out construction and relocation work in an area spanning approximately 22 miles, and is expected to be completed by 2018.