California Still Committed to Completing High-Speed Rail Construction in Central Valley
Worth the Wait: Despite Cost Overruns and Delays, High-Speed Rail Line in Central Valley is Still a Go
The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) isn’t just developing one of the largest transportation projects in the nation. It is also the first to bring true high-speed rail to the United States – an achievement already made in other places such as Japan, the first to implement this transformative technology, and China, which boasts the world’s largest high-speed rail network.
California’s high-speed rail system aims to connect the mega-regions of the state, contribute to a cleaner environment, spur economic development and create more jobs, and preserve agricultural and protected lands. Current design plans show trains capable of cruising above 200 miles per hour running from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours. CHSRA’s goal is to eventually extend the system to Sacramento and San Diego, totaling 800 miles with up to 24 stations.
This mega project is being constructed in phases, beginning with a 119-mile-long rail line connecting the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley – a region lacking quick, easy connections to the rest of the state. This leg of the project, which will provide service between San Francisco and Bakersfield, has already created more than 2,500 labor jobs and put hundreds of small businesses to work.
According to CHSRA’s 2018 Business Plan, joining these two valleys would “spark significant economic growth in the Central Valley and help sustain the economic prosperity of the Silicon Valley.” Major benefits include drastically reducing travel times and giving Bay Area workers access to more affordable housing options in cities such as Gilroy, Merced, and Fresno. High-speed rail stations would also drive the development of new livable communities. Analysts predict the line’s construction will support nearly $50 billion in economic activity.
Central Valley Construction Overview
The work taking place in Central Valley is divided into four construction packages. Three design-build construction teams are working between Madera and Kern Counties under contracts valued at approximately $3 billion. According to CHSRA officials, these contractors are scheduled to complete all structures by 2022.
Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons is handling Construction Package 1. This 32-mile segment spans between Avenue 19 in Madera County and East American Avenue in Fresno County. The construction scope includes 12 grade separations, four viaducts, a trench that will take trains under State Route 180, a major river crossing over the San Joaquin River and a pergola structure spanning the Union Pacific Railroad in north Fresno.
A joint-venture partnership between Dragados USA, Inc. and Flatiron West, Inc. is managing Construction Packages 2 and 3 in partnership with project engineers Jacobs Engineering Group and Sener. This 65-mile corridor runs between East American Avenue in Fresno County and 1 mile north of the Tulare-Kern county line. The work involves 36 grade separations within the counties of Fresno, Tulare and Kings, including viaducts, underpasses and overpasses. The team is also relocating approximately 5.5 miles of existing BNSF Railway tracks.
California Rail Builders, a joint venture of Ferrovial-Agroman US Corp and Griffith Company, is responsible for Construction Package 4. This 22-mile section stretches between 1 mile north of the Tulare-Kern county line and Poplar Avenue in Kern County. The team is contracted to build at-grade embankments, retained fill overcrossings and viaducts.
Construction officially kicked off in Fresno in 2015, and there are currently 21 construction sites.Thus far, four major activities been completed. In Madera County, workers constructed a 1,600-foot section of the Fresno River Viaduct and built the 250-foot-long, 43-foot-wide Cottonwood Creek Bridge that connects to it from the south. In downtown Fresno, the replacement Tuolumne Street Bridge – a steel-and-concrete-girder structure that is 3 feet taller than the original structure – opened in August 2017.
Most recently, crews in central Fresno finished the State Route 99 realignment project, which shifted portions of the highway between Ashlan Avenue and Clinton Avenue 80 to 100 feet to the west to make room for high-speed rail. In addition, three overcrossings were demolished and completely reconstructed. At $290 million, this is the largest project to date for District 6 of the California Department of Transportation.
This year, the goal is to complete and open the Avenue 8 and Avenue 12 bridges in Madera County. By 2020, CHSRA anticipates completing work at the San Joaquin River Viaduct and overpasses at Kent Avenue and Kansas Avenue.
All stations and high-speed rail facilities are being designed in an environmentally-responsible way to decarbonize California’s electricity sector. Once the rail line turns operational, it will be powered 100 percent by renewable energy resources. This will help the state meet its aggressive goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent under 1990 levels by 2050.
Advanced Safety Technologies
This 21st century transportation system will adhere to international safety guidelines for high-speed rail and will incorporate key safety mechanisms such as grade separations, quad gates and intrusion protectors. A total of 50 new, fully grade-separated crossings will be built in the Central Valley alone, with workers eliminating 39 BNSF Railway at-grade crossings and 16 existing Union Pacific Railroad crossings. Experts contend these combined efforts will prevent the overwhelming majority of major traffic collisions as well as improve operations on existing freight and passenger rail lines.
Positive train control (PTC) will add another layer of safety. This state-of-the-art collision avoidance technology helps to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into work zones, and train movements through misaligned track switches.
CHSRA is also adopting an Early Earthquake Detection System (EEDS) to ensure high-speed trains can operate safely in California’s high-seismic areas. EEDS is designed to detect the initial wave produced by a seismic event and immediately cut power to trains in operation at the time of the earthquake.
Initially, project officials estimated that state-wide construction of the high-speed rail network would cost approximately $33 billion. In CHSRA’s latest business plan, Phase 1 (which includes more than 500 miles of work from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin) is forecasted to cost between $63 billion and $98 billion. Development of the Silicon Valley to Central Valley rail line could range anywhere from $25 billion to $37 billion.
CHRSA is currently operating on a pay-as-you-go funding approach, which means that contracts are let as funding is committed. However, the large contracts needed for things such as track and systems, rolling stock and tunnel construction exceed the anticipated funding that will be available.
The Central Valley construction segment is still viable because it falls within the project’s current and committed funding scope. To ensure the project’s continued progress, however, CHRSA needs a steady stream of future funds that can provide certainty to its long-term contracting partners.
In February 2019, newly-elected Governor Gavin Newsom declared that California would be pulling back on the scale and scope of its high-speed rail program. For now, the state will focus on completing the Central Valley rail line linking the cities of Merced and Bakersfield.
“There’s no doubt that our state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation,” Governor Newsom said in his remarks. “But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.” For these reasons, Phase 2 plans to create additional routes along the California coast are on hold.
“The Governor has called for setting a priority on getting high-speed rail operating in the only region in which we have commenced construction – the Central Valley,” said CHSRA CEO Brian Kelly in a follow-up public statement. “Importantly, he also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our ‘bookend’ investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion. We welcome this direction and look forward to continuing the important work on this transformative project.”