Plagued by Covid-Related Delays, High Speed Rail Costs Rise

California’s High Speed Rail Authority says the pandemic has slowed construction and increased costs—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—in what has already been a slow and costly project.

The latest plan, generally re-drafted every two years, lists several ways the pandemic has slowed and increased the cost of construction due to everything from revenue losses, to staffing shortages from mandatory quarantines and even land acquisition issues, all stemming in some way from Covid-19 and the related lockdowns.

“Like literally everything in our lives, the pandemic has certainly had an effect,” said Boris Lipkin, regional director of the agency, during a panel hosted by Bay Area urban planning think tank SPUR on Tuesday.

For instance, revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade program, which auctions off permissions or “allowances” to emit greenhouse gasses, fell last year, likely due to decreased economic activity. The High Speed Rail (HSR) Authority typically draws between $500 and $750 million from cap-and-trade revenues annually. In 2020, however, it drew $288 million less than projected.

Meanwhile, roughly 250 agency workers had to quarantine in 2020, adding further delays. The agency has employed more than 5,200 workers since the start of the project, according to the latest business plan.

The HSR Authority also said California courts' closures slowed land acquisitions needed to build the rail system. The reduced court capacity may have also delayed progress in combating a lawsuit from Kings County resident Aaron Fukuda and farmer John Tos, which was originally filed in 2016. Tos’ lawsuit was struck down by the Sacramento Superior Court in 2018, but Tos filed an appeal in the Third District Court in May 2019, which is still awaiting a decision.

Construction plans for the rail system have been revised numerous times in the last decade. For example, the HSR Authority has waffled between installing two rail tracks or only one side on a 119-mile segment through Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

The HSR Authority is soliciting bids from contractors to build either option so it can compare costs, Lipkin said. Either way, he doesn’t expect the decision to be a problem for future riders. “There’s enough capacity with that reduced system to meet the service planning that we’ve done for that initial segment,” Lipkin said.

Speed Bumps

High-speed rail was approved by Californians in 2008, when 52 percent of voters approved Proposition 1A, which called for the issuance of $9.95 billion in bonds to fund a 200-mile-per-hour train that would deliver passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours.

Back then, the construction of the rail system was estimated to cost $33 billion, according to the 2008 business plan. Now the “base” estimated cost is $83 billion, but could reach $99 billion, recent reports say.

The Bay Area segments of the system alone will cost billions of dollars. The San Francisco to San Jose segment is estimated to cost $1.65 billion, while the San Jose to Gilroy segment will cost $3.19 billion.

These ballooning costs have lowered support for the project statewide, according to a 2018 report from the Public Policy Institute of California. When polled residents were informed of the cost of the project—at that time estimated to be $68 billion—54 percent were opposed. Support rose to 55 percent when residents were asked how they would feel about the project if its costs were lower.

Money is both the problem and the reason for the problem, Lipkin said. As in any development or infrastructure project, delays cost money because things like inflation and fluctuating market pressures on the construction and materials industries can dramatically increase costs without the project itself changing. The HSR Authority has struggled to get money on the front end to make progress before costs rise, Lipkin said.

So far, construction has been funded primarily through Proposition 1A revenues, federal grants and the state’s cap-and-trade proceeds. Between $20.6 and $23.1 billion are available to spend, but the estimated cost to complete the Merced to Bakersfield portion alone will cost between $21.3 and $22.8 billion, according to the plan.

Even so, HSR Authority staff remain hopeful that President “Amtrak Joe” Biden’s administration will prioritize funding the project, particularly as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has long been a proponent of high-speed rail. “How do we balance those available resources to build as much as we can?” Lipkin said. “We are better positioned now than we've been... there's more in front of us than behind us.”

The California High Speed Rail Authority’s Draft Business Plan is posted online. Public comment on the plan will be accepted up to March 12 via an online form. Residents may also email [email protected] to submit comments on the plan.



    It would be appropriate to put the project on the ballot again.

    Salvage of some form is possible, but even that is a challenge.

  2. If it went on the ballot again, it would pass again. All they would have to do is advertise that Trump wanted the HSR cancelled and it would pass 60/40.

    These people have no sense, period.

    They make the same mistakes over and over and …

    get poorer and poorer…

    and those that grift off their precious state…

    get richer and richer.

    Dirty dangerous parks, school by Chromebook, systemic racist educational outcomes, all powerful teachers union, massive dropout rates, bad roads, high gas and sales tax, expensive unreliable utilities, dwindling police, high rents, massive poverty, low pay.

    Yet record revenues collected from the top 1% because the government can’t print them money fast enough.

    Third world mindset results in third world lifestyle.

    You make your own reality.

  3. Pull the plug on the ridiculous HSR project and save our money.

    I don’t know what our state is going to gain by wasting billions of dollars to build a train that will lose millions of dollars every year and will need decades to complete..

  4. Ms. Herrera could have easily have contextualized the great benefits that will accrue to working people, the environment, relatively poor communities, small businesses and economic growth from the High Speed Rail project as laid out in Chapter 1 of the business plan ( It’s a quick read with lots of graphs, pictures and information. In addition to pointing to the obstacles and problems, a favorite pastime of conservatives (both Republican and Democrat), Ms. Herrera could have alluded to the very important, transformational, positives this public works project portends.

    Of course, landlords and libertarians don’t like the basic idea of making inter-urban, inter-regional transport in the third most spacious state in the country public, quicker and less expensive over the long-term. Such transport means land values–as in real estate prices–will tend to decline in high density northern Santa Clara County and rise along the stretch of the high speed train that will connect San Jose to Merced via Morgan Hill and Gilroy (see pages 14-17 of the business plan). All other things being equal–as economists like to say–it means lower rents in San Jose and its environs and higher land prices and rents along the high speed route into the Central Valley.

    As they mean so much to the vast bulk of working people, shouldn’t the basic relationship between public transport, housing, rents and jobs be at least part of any reporting on the High Speed Rail project?

  5. I believe you’re right about winning again with mischaracterizing opposition as Trumpian. These people believe anything, after all.

    What’s funny is that this latest article only drew four comments to date, which shows how cynical a South Bay-directed audience can be toward the project and since even many local journalists often have stopped saying “and high-speed rail” when writing about future development in San Jose or the new Google village or new train station that might be built someday. That’s an even more noteworthy thing here than repeating the many (often political) failures with the project.

  6. Yes, the delayed draft 2020 plan that now has initial work down to a single track to cut costs even more with initial testing and likely later configuration as well, as critics wisely may suspect.

    That’s after years of retraction including already choosing now to run conventionally all the way between San Francisco and Gilroy, at grade, at 79 mph, may never go faster. The current plan also continues the weird and misleading appeal to emotion of the Herd by including mention of the current Brightline Las Vegas project, which has nothing to do with the state high-speed rail project, but is the darling of some, as expressed in Fiona Ma’s gushing about it to argue for the state issuing activity bonds. Another route on the maps, wow.

    That project is down to a single track now in concept, too, coincidentally.

    More could be said about it (need to be south of Cajon in the Basin) and the future (not high-speed, but still high quality to San Diego in theory for rail service) but these are not central considerations.

    Meanwhile, South Bay interests love the idea of adding commuters to boost their local businesses, extending as far as Bakersfield among the delusional or very ambitious.

  7. We really need to fill the Merced to Bakersfield connection— NOT! This entire project is a complete boondoggle and should be shut down.

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