Initial High Speed Rail Costs Underestimated in California

The California high speed rail project will not begin construction until 2012, but controversy has followed the project since its most infantile stages.  The trend for high-speed rail drama has only gained more momentum as the construction date nears.  California Watch has reported that the initial estimates for high speed rail costs are dwarfed by newly released projections.  The story highlights the discrepancy in projected costs between 2009 and present day in terms of the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections of the high speed line.  Early estimates by the High-Speed Rail Authority placed costs for this section around $8.1 billion but depending on the choice of route, it is now believed that costs could be nearly $14 billion.

An increase in this rate is alarming for a variety of reasons.  The area between Fresno and Bakersfield is relatively flat, which means if there were dramatic underestimates for this area of track, the difference may be even higher in areas where track needs to cover uneven, mountainous areas.  This leads to further concerns on how much the project could potentially go over budget and some estimate that the total cost from Anaheim to San Francisco could jump from $43 billion to $67.3 billion.

The extra costs for the Merced-Fresno, Fresno-Bakersfield areas come from five key main elements.  An additional $3 billion will be needed to complete 36 miles of elevated tracks that will keep construction crews from closing important streets. $844 million will be used for elevated structures, tunnels, bridges, overpasses and undercrossing along the route.  $685 million of the additional costs will be used to raise tracks above floodplains.  The project will also need $430 million to purchase right of way and to cover the costs of relocating homes and businesses.  Lastly $142 million will be needed to realign a portion of Fresno’s Highway 99.  It is was also stated that estimates increased as a result of inflated material prices.

Estimates vary greatly with different route choices.  The report revealed that the cheapest route between Merced and Fresno follows Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight rail lines while the most expensive route also follows freight rail lines but goes directly from downtown Merced to downtown Fresno.  In terms of the route between Fresno and Bakersfield, the cheapest route ($6.2 billioin) follows Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks primarily and bypasses the towns of Corcoran, Wasco and Shafter while the most expensive option ($7.2 billion) includes all of these towns.

Almost any major infrastructure undertaking experiences costs that are higher than initial estimates and this story shows that the California high-speed rail project is no exception.  An interesting point made by some involved in the project was that this updated report gives a more realistic look into the financial burden that the project will cost.  With realistic figures on the table, it will be possible officials to accurately access the situation.  There are many mixed views on the project; although many are still in support of the high-speed rail’s construction, some people feel that control should be given to the state’s transportation industry, while others feel that its necessary to delay advancement of the project to avoid large cost overruns.  Whether or not California decides to repeal Prop. 1A or continue on schedule with their high speed rail is yet to be seen, but at least with more accurate cost estimates they can make an informed decision.


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