High-Speed Rail Breaks Ground in Fresno

Photo by Alex Brideau III
At today’s groundbreaking in Fresno, Governor Jerry Brown celebrates construction of California’s High-Speed Rail. Photo by Alex Brideau III

California signaled its commitment to high-speed rail with a groundbreaking today in Fresno. The ceremony, featuring a speech by Governor Jerry Brown, marks the official beginning of construction on the long-awaited train.

It also puts California on track to be the first state in the nation to build high-speed rail. That depends on how you define it, though; Amtrak’s Acela Express service between Boston and D.C. comes close, getting up to 150 miles per hour on some sections.

The first section of track to be constructed will run 29 miles between Fresno and the town of Madera to the north. It includes two viaducts, a trench in downtown Fresno, and twelve grade separations—most of them lifting existing roads over the at-grade tracks.

HSR_Merced_to_Fresno-cropped
Route of high-speed rail between Madera and Fresno. The first construction phase ends at Avenue 17, just south of Avenue 19 1/2. Image: CAHSR Authority

Today’s groundbreaking was held at the site of the future downtown Fresno high-speed rail station. It was largely ceremonial, as actual construction may not start until April. However, pre-construction activities have been underway, including archaeological and geotechnical preparation work.

In his speech Governor Brown addressed project criticisms, saying it is necessary to be critiqued to build a better project.

“It’s not about money,” he added. “You’ve got to get something in the ground. You’ve got to put the building trades people to work.”

He compared building high-speed rail with other large projects that have met with opposition, like the Central Valley Water Project, the Golden Gate Bridge, and BART. “All those projects were a little bit touch-and-go,” he said.

Despite the joyful faces and rousing speeches, it will be many years before anyone gets to ride high-speed rail in California. The next two construction phases will extend the rail line south towards Kern County, but will not reach as far as Bakersfield. A contract for the second construction phase should be signed in the next few weeks, but other construction work is still in planning stages.

Brown acknowledged the prolonged project timeline. “I’m setting these goals now for 2030, and I’m doing everything I can to make sure we get there.”

“If it seems a long time to you,” Brown said to the college students lined up behind him, “I’ll be 92 in 2030. I’m working out, I’m eating my vegetables. I want to be around to see this.”

He also acknowledged the current multi-billion-dollar gap in funding needed to complete the project. “I’m not sure where the hell we’re going to get the rest of the money,” he joked. “But don’t worry, we’re going to get it.”

Funding isn’t the only issue holding back the project. Routes are still in contention, land needs to be acquired, and several lawsuits are pending.

In December, a federal panel of the Surface Transportation Board ruled that its previous approval of the Fresno to Bakersfield segment preempts California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Several lawsuits against the project were relying on CEQA. One of those lawsuits, with the city of Bakersfield, was settled a few days after the federal ruling [PDF], with both parties agreeing to work together to find a locally preferred route but with the state agency retaining sole authority over deciding on the alignment.

Meanwhile, future system stations are being prepared in Anaheim and San Francisco. The Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC), with a super-cool roof, was recently completed [PDF]. San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal, still under construction, is a several-blocks-long building that will incorporate a large space underneath in anticipation of the future arrival of the high-speed train.

Maybe Brown shouldn’t have compared the high speed rail project to building the great cathedrals of Europe. Those took many generations to complete, and, as he pointed out, the workers who carried bricks for them didn’t live to see completion.

But his point was that this is a project with the potential to transform California for years to come.

“We are rooted in our forebears, and linked to our descendants,” he said. “This is truly a California project bringing us together today.”

  • QueerNation

    Woo Hoo!

  • Don

    FINALLY

  • jltulock

    Brown thinks he’s going to live to ride a bullet train from LA to SF. This shows he is no longer fit for office due to his extreme delusional state.

  • Fakey McFakename

    Correction needed – the federal entity that held CEQA preempted was an administrative board (the Surface Transportation Board), not a court. It’s a quasi-judicial agency, and its rulings are subject to judicial review in the DC Circuit. Agency legal rulings are usually subject only to deferential review where the statute is ambiguous.

  • Melanie Curry

    Thank you. Corrected

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Why doesn’t it go to the actual town of Madera? They didn’t want it?

  • p_chazz

    Sbould have been routed directly from SF to LA via Dumbarton bridge, Altamont, Western San Joaquin Valley and the Grapevine. This project was designed to enrich consultants, the construction industry and speculative real estate developers. I doubt it will ever be completed.

  • They dont have the population to justify a system, and its a 10 minute drive to Fresno

  • neroden

    Nonsense. It should have been routed from SF via the Second Transbay Tube through Oakland, a tunnel to Martinez, and then to Sacramento, and south — a single spine route. But anyway, water under the bridge.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Ah, so it’s not a station on the outskirts of Madera, it’s just a bypass?

  • extra

    This is not like an airplane that takes off in SF and touches down in DTLA. The whole point of a train is that it connects points along the route. The HSR goes where the people are. There are millions of residents in the eastern SJV and they need to get around too.

  • p_chazz

    It should be. The whole point was to get people from SF to LA quickly. Only 7.5 percent of the California population live in the eastern SJV, and don’t get me started on the 100-mile detour over the Tehachapi Pass to frickin’ Palmdale. The ideal solution would have been a west SJV CHSR that would connect at Tracy and Bakersfield to an east SJV milk run that would make stops at Turlock, Modesto, Madera, Fresno, Hanford and Corcoran with bus connections to Stockton and Sacramento. That was the preferred alternative suggested by the California Rail Passengers Association. The solution CHSRA chose makes no sense except to enrich consultants and contractors. How else can you explain 32 miles of viaduct in a seismically active area, ramming it through downtown Bakersfield, the Palmdale detour, etc. Already people are saying that it won’t meet it’s travel time projections.
    I’m no train hater, but I’m not a CHSR fan boy either ; I take the Capitol Corridor, BART and Caltrain to get around. It makes me sad to see our opportunity for high speed rail so tragically wasted.

  • danieleran

    The primary reason for the selected route was to get all these flyover towns to buy into the idea of building it as a CA project, not as a shuttle that would only benefit SF and LA.

    It’s too late to dream up alternative CAHSR routes. Building through central California will bring lots of benefits across the state, and the detour into Palmdale will help support the potential for connections to Las Vegas.

    While it’s being built, however, the bay area should be planning a new caltrain+bart tube from TransBay Terminal across to Oakland, with connections to the existing capital corridor to Sacramento, and get that done in parallel.

  • p_chazz

    Yep. Stations in SF, SFO, San Jose, Gilroy, Fresno, Tulare County, Bakersfield, Palmdale, Burbank and LA.

  • Gezellig

    Well, from city center to city center more like 25 min. drive (assuming no traffic problems) but who’s counting? ;)

    Also, a 30 min. trip on Amtrak’s San Joaquin line from MDR to FNO stations! And 33 min. via same to Merced, which will also have a CAHSR stop.

    I wonder how Amtrak will change its service accordingly, as presumably a not-insignificant portion of the current intercity travelers on the San Joaquin line will opt for CAHSR instead, but Amtrak could shift to cater to the extent possible to smaller-range travelers needing to go from places like Merced or Fresno to places like Madera which have Amtrak but not CAHSR stops.

  • Mike Vandeman

    Don’t we ever LEARN? High speed rail is environmentally inferior to our current low speed train, just as high speed driving is less energy-efficient than 55 MPH driving! Where is the need for such speed? Why does the environment always have to lose???

  • Well, they have a couple of years to figure that out. Since actual operations are years away. When that time comes, though Riverside County potentially wants to use Amtrak to serve the Coachella Valley (instead of the logical Metrolink because of Amtrak’s ability to twist the arm of the private railroads via its federal mandate in ways that Metrolink can’t), so they can shift the service down here. They could also add a couple more stops and offer a local service in the Central Valley, possibly with DMUs, while HSR focuses more on the intercity segment.

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