While California voters approved a proposition in 2008 to fund a high-speed rail line that would connect major cities like San Francisco to Los Angeles, progress has been slow in the years since.
California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly said that progress has been delayed several months because routine governmental tasks like legislative oversight hearings were pushed back due to COVID-19.
“[CHSRA is] not an operating entity, but certainly, we’ve been impacted by COVID. We’ve had to put in new safety measures,” Kelly said on CapRadio’s Insight. “It’s affected our construction. It’s affected our environmental process. It’s affected all elements of what we do.”
The project has faced numerous delays and cost overruns, and Gov. Gavin Newsom scaled back the plan in 2019. Then in a letter written to the CHSRA’s contracting chief this month, the construction company contracted by California alleges that a large part of the rail’s delay is due to the state failing to secure the agreements needed over land and freight tracks to begin construction.
CHSRA’s CEO Brian Kelly spoke with Insight’s Randol White about how construction has been picking up pace since he assumed his role in 2018, and while the pandemic has slowed things down, Kelly can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On how the pandemic has slowed construction of the HSR down
I think you’ll see we’re going to [on our business plan update] spend a lot of time talking about how COVID has impacted us … public transit agencies [have gone] up and down in the state and even around the nation. It’s clear here that transit agencies are now getting in California on the order of $6 billion in federal aid because they have seen such a loss of ridership.
They’ve got to find a way to rebound and come out of this COVID challenge. We’re not an operating entity, but certainly, we’ve been impacted by COVID. We’ve had to put in new safety measures. It’s affected our construction; it’s affected our environmental process; it’s affected all elements of what we do.
On what has slowed down the project as a whole over the years
The voters passed the [HSR] program in 2008, and we started construction in about 2013. The federal government gave California money and said, ‘you must spend it by this date.’ And so what happened early in this program is they started construction before they had all the right-of-way in hand, which means you’re going into construction at risk because you can only continue if you have the right-of-way in place …
So construction had some stop and starts, and when you have the stops, that translates into delays and costs, so a lot of the early challenges on this project was the fact that they were in construction at risk. They did not have all the right-of-ways in hand.
On where the HSR project is at now
So when I started [at CHSRA] in February 2018, it was estimated that we needed 1,750 total parcels [of land] for the 119 miles segment in Central Valley. Well, the reality is we need about 2,300, and so we are working through those, but we have about 80% of the parcels in hand, and we are advancing construction work. We’re in front of construction. That’s, I think, the important part right now and our effort going forward. We believe we’re going to have all the right-of-way done in 2021.
The other thing that will happen in 2021 is the first construction package — as we get to the end of this year — will be completed, which means the first 21 miles of that 119 will be complete.
We’ve got a lot of big things on the horizon in 2021 that are a milestone achievement … Our daily jobs numbers when I started was 217 workers every day on the job site. Today, it’s 1,100. We are moving this project forward in a very big way, but there are challenges. There are challenges and always will be.
On their response to the contractor letter
This is a letter from a contractor who is ultimately trying to make the argument that whatever challenges there are, it’s got to be somebody else’s fault so we can get paid. This is part of the give and take of doing a mega project with a contractor … they make claims. Our job is to evaluate those claims for merit and for reasonableness.
Look, some of it is fair. I came here in 2018. We weren’t satisfied with where the project was. We’ve made a lot of changes on staff, we’ve made a lot of changes on management, and I think that’s why we’re starting to move in the right direction … When I started here, the project was stuck. It was a quagmire, ok? Today, we’re moving the program.
So I am very proud of the work that we’re doing here. I also acknowledge, as I said earlier, starting a construction project of this magnitude without having all the right-of-way was a colossal mistake.
On when somebody can buy a ticket and ride from Merced to Bakersfield
I want that to be by the end of the 2020s. So what does that require of us? We’re going to finish out the 119-mile segment soon. We want to expand into downtown Bakersfield in the south, and we want to expand it to downtown Merced on the north, which would give us 171 miles of electrified high-speed rail to start in Merced. That would connect with trains that go to the Bay Area and trains that go to Sacramento on the Amtrak system.
Out of Bakersfield, you get on Amtrak buses, high-speed railbuses, and go to L.A., and so we want to start with that, and that’s because that’s what I have money to do … It’s a building block approach. What I’m going to achieve in the next couple of years is, I’m going to get 119 miles done. I’m going to get a track going, and I’m going to finish the environmental work on all 500 miles from San Francisco to L.A. and Anaheim.
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