Draft EIR for Central Valley Segment Now Available
A big milestone was reached today when the California High Speed Rail Authority released the Draft Environmental Impact Reports for the Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield sections of the project, the first ones that will be built with the combined state and federal funding. The Authority’s website has the full documents, and they’ve helpfully put out a series of links to each:
As the planning process advances, more information is gathered, and specific alternatives are proposed, it’s no surprise that cost estimates can change. And so they have with the Draft EIR. Given that the US news media is trained to believe that all megaprojects are bad and that changing cost estimates – which are normal as a project goes from an idea to a hard, solid, detailed plan – is somehow a huge story, it should be no surprise that the news outlets are all over this.
The main story is the AP’s “exclusive” which claims the HSR cost “soars”:
Building tracks for the first section of California’s proposed high-speed rail line will cost $2.9 billion to $6.8 billion more than originally estimated, raising questions about the affordability of the nation’s most ambitious rail project at a time when its planning and finances are under fire.
Notice the way this is framed. In and of itself, getting a more accurate cost estimate is not inherently bad. You learn what your options are, get a better idea of the costs, and make choices based on that. But the AP report implies that the new numbers are a bad thing and that it could “question the affordability” of the project – yet, as usual, you will not find anywhere in the AP article a discussion of the cost of doing nothing. Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?
A 2009 business plan developed for the California High-Speed Authority, the entity overseeing the project, estimated costs at about $7.1 billion for the equivalent stretch of tracks. Officials say those estimates were made before detailed engineering work and feedback from communities along the proposed route.
Which is correct. Feedback from communities is particularly important. Some in Fresno want a viaduct. Chowchilla wants a bypass. Wasco and Shafter would like one too. Those are not free and have cost implications.
The rail authority’s chief executive, Roelof van Ark, said planners anticipated the higher costs as more information about land acquisition and other details related to actual construction became known.
“We’ve had cost increases, but I believe the costs are now realistic and fair,” he said.
Van Ark also said he expects the estimated total cost of the project, originally pegged at $43 billion, to rise.
I have always said the same thing. Van Ark believes this is an accurate cost estimate. We’ll discuss that in more detail in a moment, but it’s good to have a solid idea of what the costs are so decisions can be made about project design.
The documents being released Tuesday lay out specific route alternatives for the 178 miles of planned tracks between Merced and Bakersfield, with an estimated total cost of $10 billion to $13.9 billion, depending on which route is selected. The first portion to be built covers most of that area.
Those estimates come out to a range of $56 million per mile to $78 million per mile. If you extrapolated that to the entire first phase of the project, which is 465 miles from San Francisco to Anaheim, you get an overall cost of $26 billion to $36 billion. Of course, building tunnels and building in urban areas will be more expensive than the Central Valley, but there’s as of yet no reason to believe that the figures of $80 billion, $100 billion, or $200 billion that are routinely thrown around by HSR critics have any merit.
Those costs are a lot higher than in other countries, such as Spain. Then again, Spain has quite low labor costs. And the cost estimates are “year of expenditure” estimates, which factor in inflation that might not materialize. Actual projects costs could be higher, but there’s just as good a chance they can be lower.
Still, as the Authority has $6.3 billion in hand, that leaves anywhere from $4 to $7 billion left to raise to build out the Central Valley segment. There are plenty of places that money could come from, such as federal loans or from the private sector (or some combination of the two).
The usual suspects will crow about this being yet another reason to not build the HSR project. But they will just be repeating their claims that new spending is bad, that the status quo is just fine – a statewide 12% unemployment rate and $4 gas is great, according to them – and that we’d be crazy to want to do anything about our economic crisis. If we want to build high speed rail and provide the basis of sustainable 21st century prosperity, we need to figure out how to get this built, and not make excuses for doing nothing.
As to the cost estimates themselves, these are not the product of a general increase, but of the specifics of the various alternatives still under study. For example, about $3.8 billion of the cost increase is due to proposals to build over 40 miles of viaducts through Fresno and other locations, especially if a Union Pacific/Highway 99 route is used. No wonder the Authority began looking at an at-grade option earlier this year.
You can see the impact of different alignments, for example, on page 6 of the Merced-Fresno highlights document. The cheapest option, a West Chowchilla version of the “hybrid” alternative that uses both BNSF and UPRR corridors, is $3.83 billion. The most expensive option, the East Chowchilla version of the UPRR/99 corridor, is $6.94 billion. However, there is significantly less variation in the Fresno-Bakersfield section, where the lower end estimate is $6.19 billion for a version bypassing Corcoran, Allenworth, Wasco and Shafter (which would likely cause farmers in Kern County to howl) and the most expensive, at $7.19 billion, is for a version following the BNSF route with an elevated through Corcoran. The other 22 options all fall within that narrow range.
There’s a lot to pore over here and discuss. One common theme is that if farmers all got their way and the project hewed closely to the Highway 99 corridor north of Fresno and the BNSF corridor south of Fresno, then the cost will be close to $14 billion for the segment. If farmers didn’t get their way and some land was taken for bypasses, the cost would be around $10 billion. In short, viaducts and aerials are expensive, and at-grade is cheap.
We know that HSR critics will jump all over this and claim it’s more evidence the project is a bad idea, we can’t afford it, blah blah blah. HSR advocates should respond by pushing the Authority to choose the segments that provide the best operational capacity for the most affordable price. That doesn’t mean we should automatically embrace the cheapest option everywhere, but if we can meet operational needs without long viaducts, we might as well do so. And if we need the viaducts, then we should go out and find funding. Each alternative should be assessed on its merits.
Overall, it’s worth keeping in mind that HSR will not rise or fall on cost estimates or the details of project design. Like virtually everything else in America, from schools to health care to roads to police and fire, it is caught up in the great battle over the nation’s future. American politics is dominated right now by a group of older, privileged people who are dead-set against spending money on anything, from health care to high speed rail, to help address the economic crisis and build a better future. HSR is coming along just fine, without any major problems. Its misfortune is to be coming along during a moment of right-wing political extremism so fierce that it threatens to destroy the country’s basic economic foundations.
If we believe HSR is a good idea, we will be motivated to solve the funding questions. If we believe HSR is a bad idea, then we’ll be motivated to use this report as an excuse to kill a project we didn’t really like. For those of us who believe it’s a good idea, the Draft EIR is a key milestone toward getting construction under way and showing us what issues need to be addressed, what choices need to be made, and what the options – and costs – really are.