California's controversial high-speed rail system is up against a new challenge

California High Speed RailCalifornia High-Speed Rail AuthorityAn artist’s depiction of the proposed high speed rail system in California.

California’s plans for a high-speed rail system are coming undone as indecision over routes undermines progress, the LA Times is reporting.

In 2012, the state rail authority decided to build the first segment of the $68-billion project from Los Angeles’ Union Station into the Central Valley, ending well short of the final goal: a two-hour-and-40-minute trip from LA to the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 2012 plan would confront the most challenging part of the route first: the rocky Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains just north of LA. It would also provide the first physical manifestation of the long-proposed project and give some assurance of its political survival.

The LA Times’ Ralph Vartabedian reported:

The original decision to start the initial segment in Burbank was considered a major economic benefit to the region, providing commuters with 15-minute rides to Palmdale, a connection to a future Las Vegas bullet train and an early link to the growing Central Valley.

But the state is facing major difficulties with the south-first plan. By building in the north initially, the state would delay the most difficult and expensive segment of the entire $68-billion project: traversing the geologically complex Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains with a large system of tunnels and aerial structures.

This new interest in building from the North first comes just one week after announcing an $800,000 effort to find a suitable starting location in Burbank, near Los Angeles.

The hope is that the north-first plan would be less risky, making it more likely that construction can begin before the project becomes politically nonviable.

Already the high-speed rail system has been attacked for rising costs, most notably by Republican members of the state assembly who accuse proponents of hiding the actual price of the system.

And public interest in the project is waning as well: a recent Stanford University poll found that 53% of Californians would like their drought-riddled state to instead spend the money on water projects.

Perhaps marking a bad omen for the project, California Gov. Jerry Brown failed to mention the effort in his ‘State of the State’ speech last week, the first time he not done so since taking office in 2012.

It’s unclear where or even if construction will begin. But one thing is certain: time is the enemy.

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