Sunday, May 5, 2013

New Obstacles Prolong California High Speed Rail Construction Delays

Groundbreaking on construction of the first segment of California's proposed high speed rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, originally scheduled for January 2013, and already pushed back to this coming July, is threatened with further significant delays because of federal regulatory and stats political difficulties. California's high speed rail authority lost the first round of its battle to keep the project out from under the jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board. The bullet train agency could take up to nine months in the process of seeking exemption from FSTB review of the entire project's design, financial and operational issues. Failure to procure the exemption could add years of regulatory wrangling delays to completion of the rail line.

Meanwhile, BNSF Railway, which already runs a freight line near the proposed route of the initial segment of the bullet train tracks, has sent a harsh letter to the authority's consultant Parsons Brinkerhoff, complaining that the agency has a planning process fraught with ambiguities and contradictions, including uncertainties respecting who has authority to negotiate on behalf of the state regarding the proposed route alongside BNSF's existing tracks through the Central Valley. BNSF asserts it will not approve high speed rail construction or operation alongside its right of way until the proposed route is clarified and safety issues concerning both construction and bullet train operations are resolved to its satisfaction.

California's House Rail Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) has scheduled a hearing for May 28 to address the BNSF issues, and California Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) has initiated an investigation into changes the bullet train agency made in its bid review process between the time of the bod opening and announcement of the successful bidder on the project. Opponents of the high speed rail project complain that the review process was altered in order to push costs which should be accounted for in the first segment construction estimate into later phases of the project to quell political opposition to the ultimate price taxpayers will pay for high speed rail in the state.

Meanwhile, all of this government regulatory and political posturing is setting back the timing of construction expenditures which could be a major boost to the west coast construction industry.

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