Report: $68B bullet train project likely to overshoot budget

In this Feb. 26, 2015 photo, a full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the Capitol in Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

LOS ANGELES — California’s ambitious Los-Angeles-to-San-Francisco high-speed rail project will likely miss its 2022 deadline and go over its $68 billion budget, a newspaper analysis concluded.

State officials underestimated the project’s challenges — particularly punching 36 miles of tunnels through the geologically complex mountains north of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times said Saturday (http://lat.ms/1RuLf0X).

It will be the most ambitious tunneling project in U.S. history. Crews will have to cross the tectonic boundary that separates the North American and Pacific plates, boring through rock formations and earthquake faults, some of which are not mapped.

State officials say the tunnels will be finished by 2022, along with 300 miles of track, dozens of bridges or viaducts, high-voltage electrical systems, a maintenance plant and as many as six stations.

“It doesn’t strike me as realistic,” said James Monsees, one of the world’s top tunneling experts and an author of the federal manual on highway tunneling. “Faults are notorious for causing trouble.”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority hasn’t yet chosen an exact route through the mountains. It also is behind schedule on land acquisition, financing and permit approvals, among other crucial tasks, and is facing multiple lawsuits. The first construction began in July — 2 1/2 years behind the target the authority had set in 2012.

The newspaper analyzed project documents and conducted interviews with scientists, engineers and construction experts.

A confidential 2013 report by the state’s main project management contractor, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, estimated that the cost of building the first phase from Burbank to Merced had risen 31 percent to $40 billion. And it projected that the cost of the entire project would rise at least 5 percent.

Parsons Brinckerhoff briefed state officials on the estimate in October 2013, according to the document obtained by the Times. But the state used a lower cost estimate when it issued its 2014 business plan four months later.

Jeff Morales, the rail authority chief executive, said he was not aware of the Parsons Brinckerhoff projection. A spokeswoman for the authority declined to discuss the differences in the estimates.

Public opinion polls taken over the years have shown that support for the project has ebbed as costs have risen — and at $68 billion, the budget is already more than double the $33-billion estimate made by the rail authority before California voters approved bonds for the project seven years ago.

Morales said he believes the costs can be reduced below the projected $68 billion. The authority is applying the best construction and engineering methods in the world, and initial contract bids have come in below estimates, he said.

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