California HSR’s just-released July progress report, as reported on bakersfield.com, contains the pleasant surprise that switching the alignment from the Tehachapis and Palmdale to the I-5 alignment on the Grapevine could save $4 billion.
Furthermore, the study indicating such cost savings “identified more than one feasible alignment over the mountain pass.” The Grapevine option was rejected in 2005 because the preliminary engineering found only one feasible alignment that crosses known faults at-grade and has a maximum tunnel length of 6 miles and maximum 3.5% grade, compared with hundreds through the Tehachapis. Therefore finding multiple alignments, such that even if further meter-scale geological studies discover new faults then some option will make it through, is likely to tilt the field back toward the Grapevine.
Robert Cruickshank is surprisingly pessimistic about the Grapevine, on the grounds that Palmdale is an important market to serve. In reality, Palmdale is a small commuter market – i.e. it has a strong peak and low revenue per rider – so giving it up is a small deal, probably fully canceled out by the gain of about 10 minutes’ trip time on the shorter Grapevine.
But most importantly, it’s most important to get an initial operable segment ready, and this means connecting the Central Valley to the LA Basin. As I’ve explained before, a major advantage of the Grapevine is that it allows connecting to the legacy Metrolink line at Santa Clarita rather than at Palmdale, avoiding tens of kilometers of sharp curves on the climb between the LA Basin and Antelope Valley.
I’m unable to find the progress report, so I don’t know to what extent “$4 billion in savings” literally means coming in $4 billion under budget. If it does, it means that theoretically, the money available suffices to build from Los Angeles to a point between Bakersfield and Fresno; Obama’s now-moribund $4 billion for HSR, matched 50:50, would be more than enough to build from Los Angeles to Fresno.
Update: here is the progress report. The relevant section is on page 27. It says only that “an alternative via the Grapevine may save between $1B and $4B in capital cost” – still unclear whether it means coming $1-4 billion under budget, or staying within budget while avoiding a $1-4 billion cost overrun on the Tehachapis.
It’s too bad the approximate amount remains unclear. The required budget is on the same order as the amount that may become available in the next two years depending on Congressional machinations, and so it’s important for California to know how much it should be asking for. For example, if it were made clear that an additional $2.5 billion in federal funding were enough to complete LA-Fresno, then Dianne Feinstein might try to include the full amount for high-speed rail in the transportation bill for 2012 rather than just $100 million.