"It may take us a little longer than we said to do this" was the update Dan Richard, chairman of California's high-speed rail project, gave state legislators yesterday. But the insane infrastructure plan could, shockingly, be less of a cash suck than expected.
The Golden State's planned bullet train project, which started construction last year, is estimated to cost a staggering $US68 ($96) billion, and it is already two years behind schedule. When finished, it will link Los Angeles to San Francisco in a non-stop, high-speed, two-and-a-half hour journey. But when execs from the project testified before lawmakers in Los Angeles yesterday, it became clear that nobody really has a good sense for how long it's going to take.
The first leg of the train, Burbank and Merced, requires 483km of track, six stations, and is supposed to be ready by 2022. But engineers and geologists said that's not enough time to dig tunnels through 58km of mountains and build high-voltage electrical systems.
On top of that, the Los Angeles Times ran a story in October based on PowerPoints it obtained under the Public Records Act, which said that the already monstrously pricy train could cost an additional $US9 ($13) billion more than expected. Those docs contained those estimated increases, which were forecast by the project's main consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, the same firm that helped build the New York City subway over 100 years ago, and that's worked on transit projects the world over.
The good news? Those October 2013 numbers weren't the whole story, andthe California High-Speed Rail Authority executives claimed yesterday that the figures were mere drafts for internal use.
Moral of the story: It's still going to be a long time before America sees the kind of bullet trains that jet at 200 to 483km/h, like the ones in Japan, China, Germany, or France. The timetable for California's project is fuzzy at best at this point, which does little to dissuade opponents of one of the state's biggest lightning-rod issues.
Some people think the whole thing's an economic risk whose noise, rumbling, and miles of tracks will ruin their communities. Sentiments like that are being echoed in Texas, where the United States' other feasible high-speed rail project is underway: building a Japanese bullet train to connect Dallas to Houston.
For now, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is thinking of a pivot: Put the Burbank-Merced leg on hold, and instead start building from the San Francisco Bay Area, so engineers can put off pesky problem of having to bore tunnels through mountains.
You can also bet on plenty more things that will slow down the process in the future: Debates, protests, funding, legislation, and construction. After all, at yesterday's hearing, one Assemblyman Richard Bloom rightful dubbed the project "one of the most complex projects not only in the state, but in the nation's history." He's right.
Concept image via California High-Speed Rail Authority