Bringing high-speed rail to California, one building block at a time

By Lenny Mendonca, Special to CALmatters

California has long been the leader in innovation, bold action and tackling projects that others wouldn’t dream of. The state highway system, BART, and the Golden Gate Bridge stand out as prime examples of challenging projects that were seen through, and today benefit millions. The vision for high-speed rail is no different.

While I have been following the high-speed rail project at a high level for years, it is only recently when I became chairman of the authority’s Board of Directors that I became acutely aware of the benefits this project presents for the state of California.

High-speed rail at its core holds fundamental, economic and environmental promise for the hardworking men and women who call California home.   

The Central Valley, where 119 miles are under active construction, is an area rich with roots and history. Growing up in Turlock, I can attest to the importance, economic benefit and attention High-Speed Rail is bringing to the Valley. I hear it each time I visit the region.

To hear some say that this project is something that is not important to California is insulting. Ensuring that we are all connected is essential to the California Dream. It always has been, and it always will be.

The authority has been in construction in the Central Valley since 2015 putting more than 2,600 men and women to work building the first 119-miles of high-speed rail. Bridges, viaducts, grade separations, and other civic works that will make up part of the Phase 1 system are all underway.

When voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008, the bond measure that provided $9.95 billion to commence construction of a high-speed rail service connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles/Anaheim, they chose a transformative mobility option for themselves and for future generations.

In a state the size of California, high-speed rail service will make huge impacts. Travel times between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin will be reduced from 12 hours by conventional rail, or 7 to 8 hours by car, to less than 3 hours by high-speed rail.

The service promises to link California’s major economic and population centers by connecting the cities of the Central Valley with the coastal regions of Northern and Southern California and beyond.  

As the state rail plan laid out, high-speed rail will serve as the backbone for a larger more integrated passenger rail network. These mobility options will allow Californians to move as they never have before.

The building block approach starting in the Central Valley makes sense.  

This economic investment and connectivity is vital for the millions of Californians who call the Central Valley home. The vision voters approved in 2008, and the mission to complete that vision remains unchanged.  

While our federal partners have disengaged, this is not indicative of the past working relationship we’ve had with them. We remain committed to fighting what we believe to be an unwarranted attack on the state, and remain hopeful that at some point they will re-engage in what has historically been a positive partnership in large scale transportation projects.

While the federal disengagement is not ideal, the authority is moving forward. The recently released 2019 Project Update Report lays out the path to expand economic benefits while demonstrating the environmental and mobility benefits that high-speed rail can deliver, even in a constrained funding environment.

The analysis done by the authority’s Early Train Operator shows the best option for early interim service in the Central Valley is to develop a line between Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield, and provide faster travel and greater connectivity in and beyond that 171-mile stretch, with better connections for travelers to the Bay Area, Sacramento and the Los Angeles Basin.

The authority must live within its means. That means completing a segment which it can fund with available revenue, and getting trains on the ground to show Californians what high-speed rail service in California can do.

The High-Speed Rail Authority will expand the entire system as envisioned, connecting a revitalized Central Valley to the Bay Area and Southern California as more funding becomes available.

This is the building block approach described in the 2018 Business Plan adopted by the authority one year ago.

To that end, the authority is investing nearly $1.4 billion in the corridor between San Francisco, San Jose and Merced. That includes completing environmental reviews and contributing $713 million to the Caltrain Electrification Project, with regional partners in high priority environmental reviews and early mobility projects to pave the way for future high-speed rail connections.

Concurrently, investments are being made in Southern California as well.

Over $1.2 billion in the L.A. Basin in concert with our regional partners is dedicated to complete environmental reviews from Bakersfield to Anaheim and high-priority bookend projects, including $441 million for Los Angeles Union Station improvements.

The authority continues to pursue the best option to begin early service in the only part of the state where we are under construction on truly high-speed rail assets—the Central Valley. This is the right thing to do because, candidly, it is time to get high-speed, electric trains operating in California.

Let’s get on with it.


Lenny Mendonca is chair of the High-Speed Rail Authority, chief economic and business advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom and director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, GO-Biz, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Please see his past commentaries for CAlmatters by clicking here and here.

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