A conceptual illustration of California's bullet train. Image by NC3D via Flickr

In summary

Costs keep rising for California’s bullet train project, but the officials who manage it can’t tell us how it will be financed.

Fourteen years ago, largely due to enthusiastic support from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond issue for a statewide bullet train system.

The initial plan said the project would cost $33 billion, limited service would begin by 2025, and the system would be complete by 2030, whisking passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2½ hours.

Never mind.

The High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest “business plan,” released this month, projects that a complete system could cost more than $100 billion, not counting future inflation. Moreover, the agency has not yet pinned down the $25 billion that it needs just to build the 171-mile starter line between Merced and Bakersfield.

Construction crews have only begun to build roadbed for the San Joaquin Valley segment and no track has been laid. Optimistically, it will be almost a decade before passengers can ride on it.

The rail authority pumps out revisions to its business plan each year, almost always raising projected costs but never laying out realistically how they will be covered.

So far, about half of the $9 billion in the bond issue reserved for the bullet train has been spent, along with a few billion more from a federal grant. The other $995 million in bonds were designated for local rail service to feed into the system.

The rail authority and Gov. Gavin Newsom want the Legislature to commit the remaining $4.2 billion in bond money to keep construction going in the San Joaquin Valley and make plans for later expansion. However, legislative leaders have balked, saying spending it on the bullet train would be a waste and demanding that the money be diverted into better commuter rail service in Southern California.

It’s been something of a stalemate but the impasse could be broken this year because Newsom’s 2022-23 budget proposes to spend $3.25 billion on local transit systems, thereby potentially placating legislators who have held up the bond funds.

The new business plan also expresses hope that the recent passage of a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure improvement program could yield some money.

“While there has been a lot of focus on the diferences between our approach to advancing high-speed rail in California and that proposed by some in the Legislature, there should be no question that the availability of new federal and state funding presents an opportunity to close that divide and agree on investments that allow statewide high-speed rail to move forward in tandem with other high-priority regional projects.” Brian Kelly, the agency’s top executive, says in a foreword to the plan.

However, the plan still doesn’t tell us how the starter line, which now is envisioned to be double-tracked and electrified, will be fully financed, much less identify a source for the other $75-plus billion to complete the project.

The unspoken hope is that once passengers are riding between Merced and Bakersfield, somebody or something will be so impressed that money will flow into connecting Bakersfield to Los Angeles and Merced to San Jose. Initially, the latter would be extending an existing traditional rail link.

What about that promise of traveling between San Francisco on one train in 2½ hours? It’s probably impossible given the project’s revisions, such as relying on a separate system to carry passengers between San Francisco and San Jose and route changes in Southern California.

In fact, it’s at least a 50-50 bet that the line between Merced and Bakersfield will be the only truly high-speed segment — and that’s only if enough money can be found to build it.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...