The independent, nonpartisan, federal watchdog agency, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), gave the California high-speed rail project passing marks in an audit released last Friday. The report found that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has produced "reasonable" ridership and revenue forecasts in its Revised 2012 Business Plan, while also pointing out that the project's cost estimates could be improved and that future funding for the project remains uncertain. Jeff Morales, CEO of the Authority, called the GAO's report, "an important validation from a highly respected government watchdog." "This is a very good, very strong, report card." Dan Richard, board chairman of the Authority said. "It's not straight A's, but we will aspire to improve in the areas where the GAO tells us we can do much better."
The Authority's business plan forecast that annual ridership will grow to between 16 million and 27 million by 2030, depending on various future conditions, such as the price of fuel. The plan's high ridership scenario assumes a fuel price of $6.11 and the low scenario assumes a price of $2.60 in 2030. Fares for high-speed rail are assumed to be 83% of San Francisco-Los Angeles airfare in 2009. The plan also projected that the high-speed rail system would generate annual revenues of between $1 billion and $1.8 billion in 2030 and proved that no public operating subsidies will be required under any scenario.
The Federal Railroad Administration is currently managing a comprehensive planning effort to define, evaluate and prioritize future levels of investment in the Northeast Corridor (NEC) through 2040. This effort, launched in February 2012, called NEC FUTURE, will produce a Service Development Plan that articulates the overall scope, alternatives and approach for proposed improvements, and a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement that evaluates and identifies ways to address broad, corridor-wide environmental impacts due to these improvements. This process is a federally-required step before major construction to overhaul the corridor's aging, unreliable, and congested infrastructure can begin.
But, before the FRA could analyze the impacts of the multitude of visions for improved NEC rail service, first it needed to narrow down the alternative visions to a reasonable number by weeding out the alternatives that are clearly inferior to others. So far, they've winnowed the list down to 15 alternative visions. Earlier this week, the FRA published its new "Preliminary Alternatives" report, which contains descriptions of these 15 different visions of the NEC, ranging from mundane to ambitious. The FRA hopes to carry around 8 or 9 alternatives forward to the Tier 1 EIS process to be weighed against the "no action" alternative (essentially doing the bare minimum to keep the corridor operating safely). The FRA's goal is to have established a final preferred alternative by mid-2015.
Last month, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a Record of Decision for one of the initial construction segments of the California High-Speed Rail Project, between Merced and Fresno in the Central Valley. This approval was the last major hurdle before construction can begin, which is now on target to break ground in 2013. Completion of the project's initial operating segment is slated for 2021.
Construction phasing for this project is complicated. The initial operating segment, 130 miles between Merced and Bakersfield, is comprised of four construction phases, two of which are between Merced and Fresno. These two construction phases are what are now cleared for construction. This work will entail constructing the spine, of what will ultimately be the statewide high-speed rail system, linking San Francisco and Los Angeles through the Central Valley in under two hours.