Cost of California’s Bullet Train Hits $98 Billion Due to Spiking Tunnel Costs

High-speed rail (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press
Newport Beach, CA

California’s bullet train appears to have released a “High Case” estimate of $98.1 billion to prepare the public for much higher tunneling costs.

Breitbart News reported on March 9 that the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSR) new chief program officer, Roy Hill, had issued a 114-page “2018 Draft Budget” with a “Base Case” cost to build the 500-mile bullet train that had more than doubled to $77.3 billion, or $155 million per mile.

That compared to the $37 billion, $74 million-per-mile plan that Gov. Schwarzenegger and other advocates claimed when they convinced voters to pass Proposition 1A in 2008.

CHSR’s first comprehensive financial review in a decade acknowledged, “The worst-case scenario has happened.” But CHSR — for the first time — included a “High Case” estimate that warned costs could spike to $98.1 billion, or $196 million per mile.

In a stunning disclosure, Hill’s team admitted that after spending $5.4 billion over the past 12 years, CHSR has only “advanced to a 15 percent design in most of the segments, as documented in preliminary engineering reports.” Even more jarring, the final design of first 119-mile segment of track between Madera and just North of Bakersfield, which began construction last year, “has only “been advanced to between 65 percent and 100 percent.”

The divergence between CHSR’s “Base Case” and “High Case” involves an $11.2 billion cost variance to traveling from Los Angeles and Bakersfield by crossing the Tehachapi Mountains though either the 3,300-foot Tejon Pass along the I-5 Freeway, or the further inland Antelope Valley Pass through Palmdale.

Either route would create the highest-elevation bullet train mountain crossing on the planet. In addition to the required tunneling being technically challenging and wildly expensive, the mountains are crisscrossed with numerous earthquake faults that are rated as very active.

Breitbart News reported in 2015 that CHSR estimated that Tehachapi tunneling would begin in 2019. CHSR claimed that with 600-foot long multi-bladed tunnel boring machines, with a crew of 20 and working 20 hours per day, CHSR would drill 100 to 200 feet a day.

But according to a Los Angeles Times interview with MIT Professor of Civil Engineering Herbert Einstein, that projection assumes optimal mountain conditions for the dig. He expects California’s maze of fractured granite rock and fault lines will slow progress to 10 to 20 feet a day. Einstein estimates that working 261 days a year, it will take 7 years at 20 feet per day and 14 years at 10 feet a day.

Another major risk factor that is not addressed in the draft budget is the continued reliance on finding a $13 billion public-private partnership that was first incorporated into the CHSR 2012 Business Plan to avoid a huge cost spike.

The Wall Street bankers that Breitbart News spoke to for this article state that there is little interest in high-speed rail public-private partnerships due to the spiraling costs, especially in California. Several mentioned the cost to build a six-mile expansion of Bay Area Rapid Transit to San Jose is estimated at $4.7 billion, or $780 million a mile.

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