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California budget ends high-speed rail standoff, sends billions to other projects

Eliyahu Kamisher, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

“It’s a once-in-a-generation amount of money that was just handed to the governor,” said Elkind. “And all (high-speed rail) has got is what they already had back in 2008.”

When voters green-lit the project in 2008, they were promised a two-hour and 40-minute ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with connections to Sacramento and San Diego at a cost of $45 billion. Since then the estimated price tag has more than doubled to $113 billion, and that’s for a pared-down version that does not include the Sacramento and San Diego stops.

High-speed rail has no funding to build a bullet train beyond the Central Valley section at a cost of $23.8 billion. Even with bond money released in the latest budget, and revenue it receives from California’s cap-and-trade program, the segment will likely need more money to push it over the finish line due to drastic cost overruns and inflation.

Transit agencies around the state have anxiously watched negotiations in Sacramento because the previous budget tied billions of dollars for other transit projects around the state to a deal on high-speed rail. Since lawmakers couldn’t reach an agreement with the governor, rail and bus operators were left without new money despite the massive surplus.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Rebecca Long, legislative manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, an umbrella group that oversees transit funding in the Bay Area. “Last year that deal didn’t happen so the money basically evaporated,” she said.

Still, Long said Northern California transit did not get everything it wanted. The budget does not include any specific carve-outs for Bay Area transit agencies, so BART, Caltrain, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority are all competing for a slice of the pie on their underfunded rail projects.


About $300 million is destined for rail infrastructure in San Diego County, where Senate leader Toni Atkins’ district is located.

“There’s no question that Southern California had some more leverage in this negotiation because more of the Southern California members were not comfortable with high-speed rail,” Long said.

One of the projects that is likely to nab some of the state funds is Caltrain’s delayed electrification project. It is scheduled to replace its loud diesel trains in 2024 with sleek electric trains if the agency can find $410 million to bridge its funding gap. A bill ensuring $260 million for the project was cast aside in negotiations, but advocates remain hopeful.

“This money is going to keep us on track to do something that will be the first electrified commuter railroad in California,” said Casey Fromson, who has led Caltrain’s efforts to secure state funding. “We’re so close to the finish line.”

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