California High-Speed Rail: Connecting the Golden State
Nearly a decade ago, at the height of the worst economic recession experienced by the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of jobs were lost, house prices plummeted, unemployment rose significantly and the U.S. stock market tumbled almost 50 percent.
In response to this crisis, the president and the U.S. Congress passed the American Recovery Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), an economic stimulus package designed to generate job growth through infrastructure investment. In addition to supporting near-term investments — like road repairs, bridges and airport facilities — ARRA funds also supported early investments into the California High-Speed Rail programme, a new transportation infrastructure system aimed at connecting the state’s megaregions while bolstering longer-term economic and clean energy goals.
California, which boasts the world’s sixth largest economy, received $2.55 billion in ARRA funds and combined it with other state and federal funds to begin construction (including strategic investments in local and regional rail lines) on a high-speed rail system approved by California voters in 2008. California met the strict requirement to fully invest all ARRA funds by 30 September 2017, drawing in hundreds of private-sector firms — including small and disadvantaged businesses — to begin work on the nation’s first high-speed rail system. Setting into motion one of the largest public infrastructure projects in the country, the investment created thousands of well-paying jobs, infusing the state’s economy with billions in economic activity.
More than three years have passed since the California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) officially broke ground on construction in California’s Central Valley, the future system’s midway point and a region hit especially hard by the Great Recession. When Phase 1 of the system is complete, it will run from San Francisco/Merced through the Central Valley to Los Angeles/Anaheim in under three hours at speeds capable of exceeding 200 miles per hour (by car, the journey takes at least 6 ½ hours in the best traffic). The system will eventually extend to Sacramento and San Diego, totalling 800 miles with up to 24 stations.
Construction Progress: It’s happening
In the Central Valley construction crews are currently making progress at over a dozen sites spanning a 119-mile segment. Three design-build construction teams are working between Madera and Kern Counties on contracts valued at nearly $4 billion. Today, as construction continues to ramp up in the valley, bridges and viaducts are rising towards the sky at multiple sites.
Construction Package 1 (CP 1), the first significant construction contract executed on the highspeed rail programme, stretches 32 miles within Madera County and Fresno County. Major structures have been erected, with several nearing completion. The first major construction within CP 1 began in summer 2015 at the Fresno River Viaduct in Madera County. That work is now largely complete. This structure is approximately 1,600 feet long and will serve as the northern gateway to the city of Fresno, carrying high-speed trains over the Fresno River and State Route 145.
Construction is also well underway at the San Joaquin River Viaduct and Pergola, a 4,740-foot long structure that will span the San Joaquin River in north Fresno and the Union Pacific tracks parallel to State Route 99 (SR 99). This viaduct will feature arches representing the northern gateway into Fresno. It will also feature a pergola structure in order to cross over the top of the Union Pacific tracks.
At over twice the length of the Fresno River Viaduct, the Cedar Viaduct in the southern part of Fresno is currently in nearly every stage of construction. The 3,700-foot structure will serve as the southern gateway to the city and its construction is expected to last through to mid-2018.
Constructing the rail line below ground eliminates the need for high-speed trains to cross roads and highways, providing a much safer mode of travel. The first section of the alignment to go below ground is the Fresno Trench and State Route 180 Passageway, a two-mile trench through central Fresno — traveling under State Route 180 (SR 180), a railroad spur, and a canal. Presently, drilling rigs are boring foundations for the trench barrier walls that will separate highspeed trains from the adjacent freight trains. As traffic has been impacted between SR 180 and SR 99, the Authority has conducted extensive outreach, both with the community and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), an executive department of California and the Authority’s parent agency.
Also as part of Construction Package 1, the State Route (SR) 99 Realignment project — a nearly complete $300-million project in which Caltrans served as the contactor — involved moving a significant stretch of SR 99 in Fresno approximately 100 feet to the west to make way for the high-speed rail line. SR 99 is a 400-mile highway that runs through the centres of Sacramento in the north (California’s capital), as well as through Stockton, Modesto, and other Central Valley cities.
Construction Package 2–3 (CP 2–3), the second significant construction contract to be executed in the Central Valley, extends approximately 65 miles south of the terminus of CP 1 in Fresno, to one mile north of the Tulare-Kern County line. Pre-construction activities continue in CP 2–3 in Fresno and Tulare Counties and crews have already carried out geotechnical and demolition projects. Currently, crews are conducting early pre-construction activities, including embankment fill and utility relocations.
Construction Package 4, the final construction contract, extends 22 miles south of CP 2–3. Major activities underway include utility relocation, clearing and grubbing, and geotechnical testing at Garces Highway in Kern County, where crews are testing the soil conditions for future construction of a viaduct that will carry high-speed trains over the highway.
Benefits and Challenges of High-Speed Rail
As construction continues to ramp up across the Central Valley, so too does job creation. As of 31 January 2018, the programme has put almost 1,700 construction labourers to work. The latest figures also underscore the Authority’s commitment to small business. As of 30 November 2017, the Authority had paid the 243 small businesses working on Construction Packages 1, 2–3 and 4 a total of at least $308.3 million. That’s money that these small businesses will invest in their local communities throughout California.
Construction in the Central Valley is taking place through the design-build process, a model consistent with many transportation projects around the country, but one that is relatively new to California public construction projects. The design-build model incorporates innovative procurement and contracting concepts to drive innovation by the private sector.
The model combines design and construction into one contract, usually performed by a joint venture. This helps ensure that the design process takes account of construction techniques and incorporates more of a contractor’s view. The model, however, is not without risks, especially when the design-build contracts are entered into very early in the project development process. Recently, after a detailed cost and risk analysis showed trends of increased cost estimates in the Central Valley, the Authority publically reported a budget increase to the 119-mile segment.
The Authority continues to develop and implement cost mitigation strategies to minimize cost increases. The Authority attributes a majority of the estimated cost increase to factors such as right-of-way acquisition and delay, utility relocations, and third-party/utility agreements that resulted in additional project scope. Some of the revised cost estimate is for increased programme contingency, funds reserved for unanticipated costs. These developments — including the reality that given ARRA federal funding deadlines, the Authority was required to begin construction contracts without full acquisition of right of way (a scenario likely to not be repeated) — serve as an opportunity to learn from the past while actively working to improve the future.
Safety and Sustainability
An important element of all three construction packages is an emphasis on safety and sustainability. Since high-speed trains will travel through the Central Valley at speeds of over 200 miles per hour, the system will be fully grade-separated. The Authority is converting 30 existing at-grade (level) street/rail crossings in the Central Valley to grade-separated interchanges.
A further 20 roadways will be rebuilt as grade separations where they cross high-speed rail lines and existing freight lines. There will be a total of 50 new, fully grade-separated crossings in the Central Valley. This investment — totalling more than $250 million — will allow vehicles to travel over or under existing rail lines and future high-speed rail lines, thereby eliminating the possibility of collisions, greatly improving safety and allowing freer-flowing vehicle traffic.
In Northern California, as part of the environmental work being done to identify the final highspeed rail alignment from San Francisco to San Jose, the Authority is working with communities to accommodate a blended system with Caltrain, a commuter rail line of the San Francisco Peninsula and Santa Clara Valley. This blended system is currently being evaluated for traffic, safety and noise impacts at existing at-grade crossings.
In Southern California, key early grade separation projects will include State College, Doran Street and Rosecrans Avenue/Marquardt Avenue grade crossings. In addition to these critical efforts, the Authority is also partnering with various local agencies to evaluate other high-priority at-grade crossing projects in order to deliver safety and environmental benefits prior to the arrival of high-speed rail.
The Authority is also employing innovative and cutting-edge construction methods to make the programme a national model for sustainable delivery. It will not only meet the needs of future generations of Californians, but provide immediate benefits to the communities in which it is being constructed. As with any infrastructure project, equipment is required for construction. To minimize the resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, each construction phase will adhere to strict guidelines implemented through contract provisions governed by the Authority’s Sustainability Policy.
Although 2018 has only just got underway, the Authority has already seen monumental change and overwhelming progress on the high-speed rail programme. Brian Kelly was selected by the Authority’s Board of Directors to lead the Authority as Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Prior to taking the helm on 1 February Kelly — widely considered the state’s top transportation policy executive — served as California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr’s transportation tsar, leading the California State Transportation Agency for the past five years. Also in January, California Governor Brown recently renewed his pledge of support for the high-speed rail programme, prominently boosting high-speed rail at his 16th and final State of the State Address in front of a joint session of lawmakers. The programme remains a signature project of his political legacy.
Another recent strategic addition to the programme’s executive team includes Joseph Hedges, who joined the Authority on 12 February as Chief Operating Officer. Hedges, who has 35 years of experience delivering infrastructure projects for the United States Navy and private sector, joined the programme from the Washington Department of Transportation, where, as Program Administrator of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Program, he guided the programme forward, turning it around after crippling tunnelling delays under the city of Seattle. Also joining the programme’s executive team as Chief Deputy Director on 12 February was Pam Mizukami, former Deputy Director of Administrative Services for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
With construction now underway, the Authority has begun planning in earnest for operations. A recently executed agreement with DB Engineering & Consulting USA for Early Train Operator services will assist with planning, designing and implementing the programme. From planning and design of tracks and systems — and high-speed trains — to implementing fare structures and schedules — and commercial and operating elements — they will act as Lead Operator with their partner company, Germany-based Deutsche Bahn AG.
Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the Phase 1 system — the high-speed rail service between San Francisco and the Los Angeles/Anaheim area — the Authority remains committed to completing environmental reviews, which will allow the Authority to select final alignments and station locations throughout the state, while at the same time being transparent about our actions and receiving and incorporating stakeholders’ feedback. Getting the project shovel-ready to build out the system as funding becomes available is paramount to completion.
The Authority is also working with state and regional partners to advance and accelerate connectivity projects across California. Nearly $1 billion in voter-approved Proposition 1A funding has been allocated toward early investments to advance state-wide rail modernization. This includes nearly $400 million dedicated to connectivity projects that support safety and modernization improvements, including positive train control (PTC), upgraded vehicles and rail corridor upgrades.
By strategically partnering with DB Engineering & Consulting USA, the private-sector operator, the Authority will be able to ensure that the high-speed rail system is designed to enhance ultimate commercial value and profitability. In March 2018 the Authority will publish its next Business Plan; an overarching policy document used to inform the Legislature, the public and stakeholders of the project’s implementation and progress, as well as assist the Legislature in making policy decisions regarding the project.
With active construction sites, many hundreds of labourers at work, millions of dollars invested in small businesses — and a sustainable delivery programme already providing benefits to Californians — it’s clear the California High-Speed Rail programme is no longer just an idea; it’s a reality that is connecting and transforming California!