Will it be faster?

Sacramento, CA (AP) — A new and fundamental debate has emerged in the battle over California’s high-speed rail project. This could significantly downgrade the problematic effort again. Is it necessary to speed up the train when the system starts up?

This is the conversation Democrats in the state legislature want to have in negotiations about whether to release about $ 4 billion in debt funding for the project. The California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority said it would need the money to continue construction after next summer. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has included it in the state budget, but negotiations between his administration and the state legislature are stalled. They hope to reach an agreement when Congress returns to its January session.

This is the latest setback in the project, initially costing $ 33 billion and expected to be completed last year. Today, the vision of going back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco within three hours is a distant dream. The first section of a rideable truck connecting the two cities of the Central Valley did not begin until at least 2029, raising the cost of the project to $ 98 billion.

There seems to be little political will to kill the project altogether or provide more resources, and construction will continue without a long-term plan.

At the heart of the recent controversy is how fast railroads can be electrified, and railroad officials say trains need to be faster. This is the big picture of the project that voters were sold to. They hope that next year, companies will design and build electrified railroad tracks and systems, maintain them for 30 years, and sign contracts to effectively secure the state over the long term.

The current plan is to move the first available section from Bakersfield to Merced. This section allows passengers to jump on another transit line and make a roundabout to the San Francisco Bay Area. Railroad officials and local transportation are planning to partner to create a single station in Merced. There, riders can get off the high-speed train and board another system, but there is not enough money to build it.

So Laura Friedman, a Democratic lawmaker who is chairman of the Transport Safety Board and chief negotiator of financing, immediately asked if it made sense to fully electrify the line. She believes that authorities’ money may be better spent to ensure that Merced has a single station. This allows passengers to reach the coastal job hub from the Central Valley, even when on diesel trains. If you have more money, the electrification you hear may end later.

“I don’t claim it’s the best solution, but I think people need to be honest about what we have money to do now,” Friedman said.

High-speed rail officials and supporters say running anything other than electrified trains does not bring clean energy benefits, contrary to voter approval.

“If you keep running the same equipment you are currently running at relatively the same speed, how do you indicate that you have made a sufficient investment in your infrastructure?” San Joaquin Regional Railroad Commission, Altamont Dan Levitt, manager of the regional initiative for Corridor Express and the San Hoakin Joint Power Authority, said they are all affiliated with high-speed rail.

The $ 4.2 billion bond money train that railroad officials are trying to access is the last of the $ 10 billion fund voters created in 2008, and some lawmakers are hesitant to offer it all at once. increase.

Friedman has now released $ 2.5 billion and has proposed requiring railroad officials to return for approval before signing a railroad and system contract.

Her proposal didn’t say anything for the Los Angeles area project she represents, but she wants more high-speed rail money. The state legislature does not share spending proposals.

The Newsom administration wants electrification.

In a statement, spokeswoman Daniel Lopez said, “We believe the era of low-speed diesel-powered railroads is over and continue to work on the future of transportation that moves people quickly and does so without further polluting the environment. I have. “

Lou Thompson, chair of a peer-review group for railway projects that independently evaluates financial plans, said how approaching bonds and what strings to attach will provide important decisions about the future of the project. Stated.

“If you’re building the entire system as (voting initiative) needs, the high-speed rail from Bakersfield to Merced is a perfectly effective system,” he said. “If you don’t intend to complete the entire system, you’ll probably think long and hard about electrifying the route from Merced to Bakersfield.”

Ambitious projects are receiving national attention as a test of whether the United States can move away from automotive culture and catch up with other countries on high-speed rail. Proponents say the completed project will radically change the way people move while reducing carbon emissions. The slanderer says it is a taxpayer’s financial benefit.

Ethan Elkind, a transportation project expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said:

In a sense, the project was set to fail when voters were given a low-cost quote for the project. Later, President Barack Obama’s administration conditioned federal funding for the start of construction in the Central Valley, he said.

Elkind said the project was still feasible, but if it wasn’t electrified, and if Congress passed President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, California’s financial competitiveness would be hundreds of rail projects. Includes $ 100 million.

“The federal government will say:” California has opted out of high-speed rail. “That’s the message it sends,” he said.

The project has just regained $ 1 billion in federal funding canceled by President Donald Trump’s administration, and the new contract specifically mentions electrified trains. Democratic senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein urged parliamentarians to release bonds in July, especially using the new federal dollar.

“Now is the time for California to withdraw from its high-speed rail commitment,” they warned.

The project has already spent $ 2.5 billion on federal funding and has received over $ 3.7 billion from California’s carbon pollution credit auction program known as Cap and Trade. The program is set to end in 2030.

Projects, whether electrified or not, are still less than tens of billions of dollars. This is one of the reasons railroad authorities are building projects apart.

“We don’t have that much money, we never have it,” said Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the railroad authorities.