High-speed rail from L.A. to Bay Area wins final environmental approval

Bonds

California’s controversial high-speed rail project cleared a major milestone Thursday when the authority overseeing the project approved final environmental clearance for the final, and possibly the most challenging, segment of the route.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s approval of a Final Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement during a two-day meeting last week marked the last environmental clearance needed to clear the full 463-mile route between downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles. The HSR authority is project sponsor and lead agency under California and federal environmental laws.

The 38-mile segment, between Palmdale and Burbank, covers some of the most difficult terrain of the entire project. It requires 30 miles of tunneling, including 28 miles through mountains, according to the authority. Trains will be underground through much of the Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, the authority said. The price tag is estimated at $28.6 billion, a 27% increase over 2018 estimates, according to board materials. Funding has yet to be identified.

The total cost of the nation’s only publicly-funded high-speed rail project is now estimated at $128 billion, and faces major funding gaps. The full route’s shortfall is as high as $99 billion, and the initial Merced to Bakersfield segment, with an estimated $35 billion price tag, faces a potential $7 billion gap, according to the watchdog California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group.

The project was initially funded in 2008 with a $9.9 billion bond issue to help fund what was then envisioned as a $33 billion system between San Francisco and San Diego.

Construction is underway at the Ventura Street underpass for California’s high-speed train.

California High Speed Rail Authority

The authority in May applied for a $450 million federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant that would advance an 8-mile extension of the initial Central Valley segment. In December, the Biden administration awarded the authority a $3.1 billion federal grant, part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides around $70 billion for high-speed rail projects around the country. The project also won money from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The project has long raised the ire of state and national Republicans and other critics, who contend it’s a waste of money and will never be finished. In May, a pair of top congressional Republicans launched an investigation into the $3.1 billion federal grant.

At a June 27 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Republicans questioned Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the administration’s support for the project.

“Are you capable of recognizing a hopeless boondoggle?” asked Rep. John Duarte, R-Calif.

“I’ve seen a lot of the most compelling and ambitious human projects characterized as hopeless boondoggles during the time that they were taking shape,” Buttigieg said. “I’m not surprised for a project that represents the first movement in the United States of America toward this kind of technology that it has proven to represent a lot of challenges for those first movers.”

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