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A 'low-cost' plan for California bullet train brings $800 million in overruns, big delays

Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — A 65-mile section of California's bullet train through the San Joaquin Valley that a contractor assured could be constructed much more cheaply — with radical design changes — has become another troubling and costly chapter in the high-speed rail project, a Los Angeles Times investigation found.

The segment runs across rivers, migratory paths for endangered species and an ancient lake bed through the length of Kings County, a fertile agricultural belt south of Fresno. Before awarding a contract for the section, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and its consultants knew about these sensitive issues and prepared lengthy environmental reports aimed at accelerating construction by avoiding legal obstacles.

But in 2014, when the rail authority awarded the contract, it went with the lowest bidder — a Spanish company named Dragados — which promised $300 million in cost savings by altering the design that the authority had proposed to regulators.

Seven years later, these changes have been largely abandoned and have contributed to more than $800 million in cost overruns on the Kings County segment. That figure is 62% above the contract price tag, which the rail authority has agreed to pay, according to interviews and technical and contractual documents reviewed by The Times.

In addition, the rail authority awarded the contract without first completing a scientific assessment of how sinking land in the area — a result of decades of excess groundwater pumping — could affect the rail route. California is now paying tens of millions of dollars to raise track embankments over 21 miles.

In a written statement, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said it is working with regulatory agencies to resolve design issues. The agency declined to make top officials available to answer questions but asserts it is making good progress on completing an initial 171-mile line through the San Joaquin Valley, which includes the Kings County section. It also said that it was not required to finalize the study on land subsidence before construction began in 2015.


"We continue to apply lessons learned to our current and future work to ensure issues of the past do not repeat themselves," the authority said, adding that in the last two years, the state agency has established 35 active construction sites across 119 miles of the Central Valley.

Officials for Dragados — which has extensive bullet train experience across Europe but less of a track record in California — did not respond to telephone and emailed requests for comment, saying they are "required to coordinate responses to media questions" with the state.

Some experts say this marks yet another black eye for the project that has been beset by cost overruns and delays that now threaten it. The price tag of the massive project to build a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail system has shot up from an original estimate in 2008 of $33 billion with service starting in 2020 to at least $100 billion with an uncertain start date.

"The rail authority should have been concerned about the low bid," said William Ibbs, a University of California, Berkeley professor of civil engineering who has consulted around the world on high-speed rail projects. "The devil is always in the details."


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