Report: Cost Overruns and Deadline Constraints Plague California High-Speed Rail

At the heart of the financial and deadline challenges facing the $68 billion high-speed rail project are 36 miles of tunneling north of Los Angeles, according to Los Angeles Times analysis that includes interviews with experts on mega-projects.

2 minute read

October 28, 2015, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

California Bullet Train

Lisapalomeque / Wikimedia Commons

"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," writes Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times.

Vartabedian writes that his paper's analysis "indicates that the deadline and budget targets will almost certainly be missed — and that the state has underestimated the challenges ahead, particularly completing the tunneling on time." which he calls "the most ambitious tunneling project in the nation's history."

"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. "[Earthquake] Faults are notorious for causing trouble."

The tunnel challenges are indeed formidable. The project "will require about 20 miles of tunnels under the San Gabriel Mountains between Burbank and Palmdale, involving either a single tunnel of 13.8 miles or a series of shorter tunnels."

The rail authority only asked permission last month to begin testing under the Angeles National Forest to build the tunnels, wrote Steve Scauzillo of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on Sept. 25 in a detailed article about tunnel options.

In addition, "(a)s many as 16 additional miles of tunnels would stretch under the Tehachapi Mountains from Palmdale to Bakersfield," adds Vartabedian.

Three years ago Vartabedian wrote about the same engineering challenges - posted here

Other experts chimed in on the other challenges facing nation's largest public works project.

...Bent Flyvbjerg, a University of Oxford business professor and a leading expert on megaproject risk, said the lagging schedule, litigation, growing costs and permit delays arising so early in construction are warning signs that even more delays and higher costs are coming.

"You can never make up an early cost increase," said Robert Bea, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a pioneer in civil engineering risk analysis. "It just gets worse. I have never seen it go the other way in 60 years."

Do tunnel projects go bad? Just ask the citizens of Seattle where the world's largest boring machine, Big Bertha, has yet to renew boring the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel since it broke down in December 2013. However, it was "on the move" last February and is now being repaired.

Notwithstanding the projects formidable challenges, there are those who believe in the project, wrote Steve Benen for MSNBC in January. Even retiring House Speaker John Boehner said rather unexpectedly two years ago that he’d like to see the United States become “a nation of builders” again.

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