Bullet Train Bombshell: CAHSR Spurned Cost-Cutting Offer From the French

The news keeps flying in the California high-speed rail saga: Just days after the California Senate (barely) released the first round of construction funding, the LA Times broke the story that the French national rail company, SNCF, had offered to finance and build the project in 2010 for a substantially lower cost.

California's bullet train is under scrutiny for turning away a 2010 offer to build the project for much less than current cost estimates. Photo: LA Times

An official with knowledge of the SNCF plan said it would have cost $38 billion, far less than the $68 billion currently estimated by the California High Speed Rail Authority. But SNCF insisted on a route that ran along I-5, outside the central areas of Fresno and Bakersfield, which the authority dismissed. Sources told the LA Times that the agency was under political pressure to directly serve the two smaller central metros.

Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations sorted through math and offered his take on the implications:

The problem: the cost of the Central Valley segment is a sufficiently small portion of the cost that it can’t possibly make the entire or even most of the difference between $38 billion and the current price tag…

So if it’s not just I-5, what is it, and what can we learn from this? I believe the results should if anything make the HSR Authority look even worse than it already does in light of this story and its lackluster response. This is because it means the entire amount of money required to build to SNCF’s specs but serve Bakersfield and Fresno, at edge-of-urban-area stations if the cities object to the noise of trains through downtown (which at least Fresno does not), is a small number of billions of dollars. This means that if service to those two cities was the true dealbreaker, the Authority could have asked SNCF to change the alignment back to the chosen route or a greenfield route just west of it, and then demanded that Fresno and Bakersfield pay for the difference.

As noted by Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic, CAHSR had plenty of good reasons to insist on the inclusion of Fresno and Bakersfield in the system design.

Freemark writes that these areas have a combined population of more than 3 million. He also notes that these two cities, which lack major airports, have a lot to gain from inclusion. Finally, there’s important political considerations: “Without support from some residents and politicians in the Central Valley, the program could not have been passed either in 2008 or last week,” Freemark said. “Avoiding Fresno may have made building any high-speed rail impossible.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Shareable ponders the prevalence of tiny apartments and adding more of them will be good for cities. Cyclelicious uses Craigslist job ads that require “dependable transportation” to gauge the strength of transit systems in cities around the country. And World Streets examines the research on pedestrian plazas and determines they can be successful, but they must be carefully designed.