California High Speed Rail Central Valley Corridor Gets Federal Grant

Image: CAHSRA

Image: CAHSRA

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $2.4 billion in grants for high speed and commuter rail projects around the country today, including $900 million for various portions of California’s rail network and High-Speed Rail project.

US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood compared the initial investment in high-speed rail networks across the country under the Obama Administration to the Interstate Highway system under President Eisenhower starting in the 1950s. The highway system, writes LaHood on his blog, “is the life-blood of American commerce and mobility.”

“Every vision this nation ever realized began with a few courageous steps,” LaHood continues. “If we put off high-speed rail by saying it will take too long to build, then it will never happen. Now it’s time for another bold step. The America I grew up in didn’t just happen. Our nation’s progress was only made possible through the imagination, investment, and hard work of those who came before. And I’m proud that, today, we’re adding to that legacy with President Obama’s commitment to high-speed rail.”

The federal money is being spread across various high-speed rail corridors from Florida to Illinois to Seattle. John Robert Smith, the CEO of national transit non-profit Reconnecting America, commended the Obama administration for the grants and also compared the initiative to the Interstate Highway system.

“A national high-speed rail system is not only an opportunity to redefine how we travel and how our regional economies grow, it represents the type of innovation and progress that can guarantee another century of growth and prosperity in America,” Smith said in a statement.  “It gives people a choice in how they travel, something polls have shown Americans want.”

Of the various high-speed rail projects around the country, the California project received the most money, reflecting the groundwork that has already been done in the state to prepare for a system that will link San Francisco with Los Angeles in under three hours.

The first phase of the 800-mile high-speed rail system will span the San Francisco Bay Area to the Los Angeles metropolitan area and will be built in several sections to manage the construction process and gets trains on the tracks as soon as possible, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA). The four sections being considered as the potential launch point for high-speed rail construction are San Francisco to San Jose, Merced to Fresno, Fresno to Bakersfield and Los Angeles to Anaheim. The CAHSRA  is currently in the environmental analysis phase for all sections in the system.

Of the $900 million total to the state, $715 million of the funding is earmarked for the Central Valley Corridor, either the Merced-to-Fresno or Fresno-to-Bakersfield sections. The money is expected to build 500 miles of high-speed rail track, rail stations and control technology. The new grant brings the total secured for construction on the CAHSR system to $4.3 billion, according to the CAHSRA. Construction of the core system will begin in 2012, after route alternatives have been chosen and environmental review completed.

CAHSRA CEO Roelof van Ark has committed the CAHSRA to a set of route selection criteria and the Federal Railway Administration has given the CAHSRA until January to determine which segment of the route it will begin building first.

“It is absolutely critical that we invest these funds where they will do the most good,” van Ark said in a statement several weeks ago. “We want our board of directors to have all the facts when they make this decision, so we are spelling out both the legal requirements and a clear assessment of the benefits and risks in each eligible section.”

Though the federal grant is directed at the Central Valley Corridor, there is no guarantee the CAHSRA will start with that segment, though van Ark acknowledged that today’s grant could lead to the impression that the Central Valley Corridor would be the first.

“While we recognize that the federal government has indicated a preference by specifying the Central Valley for the bulk of the award, the [CAHSRA] is committed to using formal criteria in making the selection to decide where to begin building high-speed rail,” said van Ark.

The next meeting of the CAHSRA board is set for November 4th, when it will discuss the formal criteria and obligations it faces under federal law and Proposition 1A, the $10 billion bond California voters approved in 2008. According to the CAHSRA, the selection for construction of the first segment is expected before the end of the year.

Robert Cruickshank of Californians for High Speed Rail, a non-profit that supports the project, argued the grant shouldn’t be seen by the public as competition between segments. “This shouldn’t be about picking winners and losers. This should be about picking the timeline for construction,” said Cruickshank. He said the availability of federal matching funds is one of the important criteria for selecting the first segment, but it is not the only one.

“I think they have to assess other pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “They have to make sure the environmental approvals are significantly advanced. It may make it a bit more likely, but it’s not a done deal.”

Cruickshank argued that much more energy should be spent on securing additional federal funding, a prospect that could be increasingly difficult depending on the outcome of the November 2nd election. If Republicans took control of the House or both the House and the Senate, said Cruickshank, a new transportation bill with significant money for high-speed rail could be wishful thinking. At that point, he said, the CAHSRA might need to rely on foreign sovereign wealth funds from China, Japan, or the Middle East.

“A lot will depend on what happens on Tuesday,” said Cruickshank.

Federal Grants Beyond High Speed Rail

In addition to the money given to the CAHSRA for the Central Valley Corridor, the US DOT announced various other grants for improving existing rail infrastructure throughout California. From the US DOT announcement:

  • Caltrans will receive $100 million to purchase approximately 40 new bi-level intercity passenger rail cars and several locomotives for use throughout the state.
  • The San Francisco to San Jose High-Speed Rail Corridor will get a $16 million grant to improve San Francisco’s 4th and King Street Station by reconfiguring tracks and signals, elongating platforms, and modifying the building to accommodate future high-speed rail service on the San Francisco – San Jose segment of the California high-speed rail corridor.
  • The Pacific Surfliner Corridor from San Luis Obispo to San Diego will receive grants worth approximately $30.1 million to pay for planning and environmental studies along the route.
  • Two additional FY 2009 awards of $24.9 million and $13.5 million will be used to install positive train control technology and upgrade signal communications on the corridor between San Diego and Moorpark. These projects will improve on-time performance and ultimately allow for top speeds of 110 miles per hour on the segment connecting Los Angeles and San Diego.
  • A $1.5 million grant will allow California to complete its State Rail Plan.
  • The San Joaquin Corridor (Sacramento/Oakland — Bakersfield) will receive a $300,000 grant to fund the completion of planning and environmental studies.