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Pacheco Pass may turn high speed rail into Jerrys Folly
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Twenty-seven miles east of Hollister in the heart of earthquake country is where California High Speed Rail could meet its Waterloo.
It is where a problematic 13.5-mile tunnel starts that skirts the northern edge of San Luis Reservoir and drills into a geological mixture of sandstone riddled with weak shale known as the Franciscan Complex. It was the result of the Pacific Plate slipping under the North American Plate to push what is now known as the Diablo Range skyward.
In spots the tunnel will need to run 1,000 feet deep. This is where the high speed rail authority wants to construct the country’s longest and most complex transportation tunnel.
The cost of crossing beneath Pacheco Pass was never fully vetted before the high speed rail authority made what in retrospect is looking more and more like a fatal decision to not go over the somewhat lower Altamont Pass instead.
The rail authority pegged the cost of building the 54-mile segment from Chowchilla to Gilroy at $5.6 billion. Some of the world’s foremost tunnel experts contend the tunnel alone is likely to run between at least $5.5 billion and $14 billion. There is little doubt the segment’s cost has been grossly underestimated.
This week brought yet another confession from the high speed rail folks that they once again underestimated the cost of the initial 119-mile segment from Madera to Bakersfield that was pegged at $7.8 billion in 2016. Cost overruns have pushed the price tag to $10.6 billion.
The problem is private sector investors want to see if the San Francisco to Southern San Joaquin Valley is profitable first before they will consider putting up a single dime. The rail authority has only $21 billion to get the starter system in place.
There is a now a very good chance emerging that the rail project will run out of funding and therefore political steam before getting the critical starter system in place. If that happens, Jerry Brown’s dream of high speed rail being his legacy project will come true but not in the way he envisioned. It could become the most expensive white elephant in the annals of California history serving as the definition of “boondoggle” for generations to come.
There is a way to prevent the high speed rail project from collapsing under the weight of Peter Pan cost estimates and give it a fighting chance to secure private sector funding to help complete the Los Angeles connection and see the day where it would be extended to San Diego and Sacramento. Instead of heading to the Bay Area via Pacheco Pass they should go to San Jose first via the Altamont Pass.
It’s already been looked at and was viable but wasn’t considered the preferred option due to targeted travel times. But if the goal is to get a starter service up and running that makes sense why not change horses? At the moment you wouldn’t be doing it in mid-stream but rather before they are committed to forging a stream that is beginning to look more and more as the event that will succeed in taking the high speed rail project under.
With it’s never ending cost overruns fueled by grossly underestimating costs and assuming no pushback from lawsuits and such the project has about as much credibility as ISIS would have in the role of a peacekeeper. It is getting absurd not to see high speed rail as a project that is on a course to bring it near the end of the tracks.
The rail authority could easily modify the ACEforward plan and bring high speed rail up the Union Pacific Corridor from Merced to Manteca and then go down the 120 Bypass median and connect with “straightened” out ACE route over the Altamont Pass into San Jose where it could connect with CalTrain. Even better with plans advancing to try and extend a BART line from where it now ends in Pleasanton in the median of Interstate 580 to connect with an ACE station. BART would connect directly from a high speed rail station on the ACE line in Pleasanton with the Trans Bay Transit station. High speed rail then would continue onto San Jose that is not only larger than San Francisco but is in the heart of the region driving Bay Area growth,
It is really laughable that people pushing a vision such as high speed rail can’t see where the future lies in the Bay Area. While San Francisco has seen respectable growth in high tech areas it is nothing compared to the Silicon Valley and its future.
San Jose is clearly emerging as the business hub of the Bay Area. And while San Francisco won’t likely ever slip so much that it will become an afterthought, it is not situated like Los Angeles where it has the potential of being a three-dimensional high speed rail hub. Trains could eventually go north and south out of Los Angeles as well as eastward into the Inland Empire and even to Las Vegas and beyond to build a much healthier potential passenger base.
San Jose service can head north and south as well as east into the Bay Area’s equivalent of the Inland Empire — the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
It doesn’t take too much of a crystal ball to see Pacheco Pass’ great potential to turn what the governor envisioned as a legacy project into Jerry’s Folly.