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California approves high-speed rail link between Central Valley and Bay Area. Here’s what it means for housing, jobs

Plans for a high-speed rail line that could speed up commuters between the Central Valley and Silicon Valley – linking the low-income region and its affordable housing to better-paying tech jobs on the coast – have come a long way forward this week as rail authorities signed off on the 90-mile extension.

The High Speed ​​Rail Authority’s board of directors unanimously approved plans and environmental clearance for the segment between San Jose and Merced on Thursday. Now the agency estimates that the line will be in service in 2031, although the project has faced repeated delays and cost overruns.

Construction has been underway in the Central Valley for about seven years, but the railway board’s vote is novel in that it is the first time plans to extend railways to a coastal region have been approved .

The train system could take passengers between Fresno and San Jose in about an hour, or about a three-hour drive by car today. Dan Richard, former chairman of the Rail Authority Board who resigned in 2019, said the extension would help California address a jobs and housing mismatch between disparate regions.

“Really, this state is split between coastal and inland areas,” he said. “A key element of the bullet train, in addition to being a fast choo-choo train, is the ability to merge the entire state and balance our most underdeveloped areas with the most prosperous. “

From the outset, proponents of the project touted the high-speed rail as a way to connect the state’s low-income interior to its prosperous coast. State and regional leaders said the Merced-San Jose expansion would help California realize that vision.

“Completing this critically important high-speed rail project helps the state expand economic opportunity and affordable housing, two critical goals for all of us,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement. a statement.

The segment would be part of the 500-mile Phase 1 rail project, which aims to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. With the approval of the Silicon Valley extension, nearly 400 miles of this first phase have been approved.

California voters approved $9.95 billion bond financing for the high-speed rail in 2008, with the promise that the money would be used to help build a 220mph train to ferry passengers between major cities. parts of the state in less than three hours.

But the project has been ridiculed over repeated construction delays and soaring costs, with its total budget dropping from $33 billion to around $105 billion in the Rail Authority’s latest business plan. Trains were originally scheduled to start running in 2020. Now, the agency does not expect the first trains to start running in the Central Valley until 2029.

Originally, the Rail Authority planned to build tracks to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, including the line going east to Silicon Valley. Governor Gavin Newsom stunned many lawmakers and rail advocates two years ago when he announced he would focus on the Central Valley line first mainly due to rising costs.

In that sense, the approval of the Merced-San Jose segment this week was a boost for rail supporters, who have struggled to repair the project’s image following dissatisfaction with the approach of Central Valley.

Brian Kelly, chief executive of the High Speed ​​Rail Authority, said in a statement that the vote is a “major step and brings us one step closer to providing high-speed rail between Silicon Valley and Central Valley”.

Railroad officials have long pointed out that planning for expansions to the Bay Area and Los Angeles never stopped, despite the agency’s race track in the Central Valley coming first.

Despite challenges from the Rail Authority, polls suggest most voters have not shunned the project. Berkeley’s Institute for Government Studies released a survey this month that found 56% of registered voters favor building the train even if the Central Valley segment is built first, while 35% opposed it.

The section approved this week will connect San Jose’s Diridon Station and a downtown Gilroy station to the five-station Central Valley segment from Merced to Bakersfield, the project’s initial 171-mile stretch.

Rick Harnish, executive director of High Speed ​​Rail Alliance, a national advocacy group, said the move underscores how the Rail Authority has not lost sight of its ultimate goal of connecting coastal and inland areas – and to create a system that overcomes physical and economic barriers.

“This is the first crossing of the Pacheco Pass, which changes the economic geography of the state,” Harnish said, referring to the mountain range between Central Valley and Silicon Valley. “It’s a huge step forward.”

Rail authority officials said the rail is currently under construction at 35 active yards along 119 miles in California’s Central Valley.

A second phase in the Bay Area — from San Jose to San Francisco — is expected to get environmental clearance this summer, according to the authority. It is expected to be in service in 2033. Plans for this segment include high-speed rail stops at San Francisco International Airport, Caltrain Mission Bay Station at Fourth and King Streets, and possibly the Sub- floor of the Salesforce Transit Center.

High-speed rail will share peninsula rail tracks with Caltrain, and commuter rail is in the process of electrifying its tracks. The most construction-intensive portion of the San Jose-Merced segment involves tunneling a 15-mile stretch of trails through Pacheco Pass into the Diablo Range.

The high-speed rail is one of the main elements of an ambitious set of plans by the region’s transit agencies to connect Northern California by rail. The Salesforce Transit Center would also potentially be linked to a second Transbay tube that could expand the BART system. This vision, however, is years, if not decades, away from becoming a reality and lacks the funding to make it happen.

Meanwhile, the headwinds facing the statewide high-speed rail project have not abated either. For starters, it’s still unclear how California will pay for the full cost of the train — and Newsom and some state lawmakers are deeply at odds over his strategy for the project.

Newsom’s latest budget proposal once again asks the Legislature to approve $4.2 billion in bond financing to complete construction of the initial segment of the train from Merced to Bakersfield. The money reflects the rest of the funding that voters approved in 2008.

But the governor’s request still faces resistance from some powerful lawmakers, who argue that the emphasis on building the Central Valley segment of the train first is a far cry from the original vision being sold to voters. Instead, they pushed to spend some of the money improving commuter rail systems in the most populated areas of the state.

Lauren Hernández, Ricardo Cano and Dustin Gardiner are the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @ByLHernandez, @ByRicardoCano, @dustingardiner