California: Background

Jerry Brown has been a proponent of high-speed rail for over three decades. When he was first Governor of California, from 1975-1983, Brown signed legislation to study high-speed rail. During his 1992 presidential campaign, he vigorously promoted high-speed rail in nationally televised Democratic debates.

In 1993, California created the Intercity High-Speed Rail Commission to conduct studies and to prepare a high-speed rail plan for the state. In 1996, the state created the California High Speed Rail Authority, a state agency to oversee design and construction of a statewide high-speed rail system. The legislation to create the authority was introduced by State Senators Quentin L. Kopp and Jim Costa, who is now a U.S. Representative. Kopp went on to serve as Chairman of the CHSRA.

In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 1A – the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century – a law championed by Kopp that allocated $9.95 billion to the CHSRA. $9 billion is available for planning and construction of a high-speed rail system and the remaining $950 million would be used for capital projects on other passenger rail lines to improve connectivity with the high-speed rail network. The statute requires a one-to-one match from federal funds.

In January 2010, the federal government announced that California would receive $2.25 billion for high-speed rail from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Another $715 million was awarded in October 2010. In December 2010, the Department of Transportation awarded $624 million to California from high-speed rail funds that were rejected by the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio. In May 2011, the DOT awarded California another $300 million from funds rejected by the governor of Florida.

In November, the U.S. Department of Transportation obligated the first $928.6 million grant to the California High-Speed Rail Authority for initial construction of the network.

The California High Speed Rail Authority recently released a revised 2012 draft business plan that clarifies how the initial construction segment in the Central Valley is the critical first step toward a statewide system. It cuts costs from the original business plan by $30 billion to $68 billion. It introduces the concept of "blended service", which will allow the network to provide service to destinations beyond the initial construction segment.

Cities between Sacramento, Oakland and Bakersfield will see vastly improved service by 2018 with the Northern California Unified Service plan, which upgrades existing rail services in northern California and blends service with the newly constructed track in the Central Valley. The new plan also gives top priority to closing the existing gap between the Central Valley and the LA Basin. Click here to learn more about plans for the different phases of the project.

The California Legislature approved financing for the project in July 2012, which allowed the state to take advantage of matching Federal high-speed rail funds. Construction should begin on the nation's first 220-mph high-speed rail line by early 2014. 

The process undertaken by the state should be an example for other states to follow in developing future high-speed rail in other parts of the country. The project has, of course, encountered murky waters, as most large infrastructure projects of this kind do. Yet, it has continued to move forward and an exciting model has been established for future high-speed rail projects to follow.