Tracking High Speed Rail on the West Coast

Tracking High Speed Rail on the West Coast

In February Vice President Biden announced an additional $53 billion federal investment in National High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail funding in the next six years, helping bring the total amount of funds for California’s High Speed Rail project up to well over $3 billion, with possibly more coming as a result of the $2 billion rejected by states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Money may be pouring in, but little else about the project is well known.

First, some overall numbers: There will be 800 miles of track and up to 24 stations, running from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. According to the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), a trip from Los Angeles to San Diego will take one hour and 18 minutes, and a trip to San Francisco will take an astonishing two hours and 38 minutes.

Consultants, led by major engineering firms like Parsons-Brinkerhoff, Arup, and HNTB, are moving the projects toward construction with preliminary studies, with the scope of their work divided into nine sections across the state, and proceeding independently. A total of nine regional contracts were awarded in 2007, most of them lasting five years.

The first 120-mile segment of the project is scheduled to begin construction in 2012, linking Fresno to Bakersfield, a strategic decision allowing the Authority to build the 220 mile per hour high-speed section first and then move both northward and southward simultaneously.

The move from planning into design began with the February 8th publication of an RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) in the Design and Construction of the Fresno to Bakersfield section, and the future “design, construction, funding, operations, and maintenance” of any part of High Speed Rail’s Phase 1 program, planned for completion by 2020. Due March 16, this is not a formal Request for Proposals but, according to the Authority, a way for it to refine what it’s looking for, and an opportunity for the professional community to provide input.

“Anything we can gain from the RFEI is important to us,” CHSRA CEO, Roelof van Ark told an industry group in early March in LA. The formal Request for Proposals will be released by the end of this year, he said, and the first construction contracts should be awarded in the second half of 2012.

The authority has suggested that it will pursue design/build project delivery, which, considering the scale of the project, suggests the use of the same multi-national engineering firms currently working on alignment and environmental studies. Still, van Ark has affirmed that the CHSRA is making a special effort to include small businesses and will encourage its large contractors to do the same. “We want to deal fairly with our small business partners,” said van Ark.

In general, station design, according to recently drafted authority guidelines, will support local development standards and goals, privileging transit-oriented development, sustainable infill, and some additional amenities (parks, bike lanes, etc.) around station sites. The first two stations to be unveiled—HOK’s glassy Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center and Pelli Clarke Pelli’s swooping Transbay Transit Center—have been designed as intermodal centers supporting both local and regional rail.

In early March, the authority announced the development of Visual Design Guidelines, in partnership with the City of San Jose, for the San Jose-Merced project section, governing both “functional and iconic design” in the city. In addition, “Citizen Working Groups” will be part of the Visual Design Guideline process, signaling a transparent methodology for the CHSRA in urban areas.

Meanwhile on March 3 the authority moved forward with an “alternatives analysis,” further studying station designs, track alignments, and community concerns. So far the CHSRA has conducted over 800 community meetings.

With nearly $10 billion committed so far by the State of California and at least $3.3 billion coming from the federal government, the CHSRA continues to advocate for private sector funding as well. How that will fall into place is still unknown, but the RFEI is meant to help the authority figure that out. In the meantime, preparations for construction continue, in the hope that funding will be in place as it is needed.