High-speed rail projects move forward despite coronavirus

With more people working remotely, transportation agencies have found themselves with less revenue, which could mean fewer expansions of commuter transit services and a diminished ability to stay current with maintenance. In New York City, for example, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials said recently that without federal assistance, the agency faces a $16 billion funding gap through 2024 and has put its $50 billion capital program on hold in no small part because of coronavirus-related loss in revenue.  

High-speed rail projects could feel the cash crunch as well, although, according to those agencies and developers, their projects are chugging along, and officials are optimistic about their ability to deliver on anticipated demand.

Read on for an update on some of the most high-profile high-speed rail projects in the works in the U.S.

California bullet train

Permission granted by California HIgh Speed Rail Authority


California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) officials have been much maligned over what some perceive as management missteps, as well as cost overruns. However, they have remained defiantly optimistic in the face of diminished state political support from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the federal government’s move to defund the $100 billion high-speed rail project.

After taking office in January 2019, Newsom temporarily shelved all but the $20 billion, 119-mile Central Valley portion of the project between Merced and Bakersfield. Shortly thereafter, the Trump administration said it would cancel a $929 million Federal Rail Administration loan and potentially seek reimbursement of $2.5 billion in federal grants.

A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that construction had stopped on one of the project’s bridges due to construction and design errors. That work is part of Construction Package 1, and Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, a joint venture, is the design-build contractor. The CHSRA has awarded the design-build contract for Construction Package 2-3 to the joint venture of Dragados USA Inc. and Flatiron West Inc., and the contract for Construction Package 4 to California Rail Builders, a joint venture between Ferrovial Agroman West LLC and Griffith Co. Those four contracts represent 114 miles of rail within the Central Valley.

As of June, the project had created about 4,000 jobs at more than 32 active construction sites along the Central Valley route, according to Kyle Simerly, public information officer for the CHSRA. The extra precautions that the CHSRA has taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic — i.e. remote worke for 90% of its staff and safety protocols to protect field personnel and the public — hasn’t stopped the project from increasing employment 149% from August 2019 to July.

As a result of the coronavirus, the state will hold off on adoption of the CHSRA’s 2020 business plan until Dec. 15. “Until then,” Simerly said, “we will advance the important work we now have underway in all regions.”

The pandemic has also forced the CHSRA, he said, to extend the public review period for some environmental documents. Since September 2019, the authority has released five environmental impact documents, including the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) for the 50-mile “Central Valley Wye” between Merced and Fresno.

Moving forward, Simerly said, the CHSRA plans to start testing its electrified high-speed trains by 2025 and put those trains in service between 2028 and 2029. The project is within the budgetary range established in 2018, and the authority should be able to complete “full environmental clearance” for the 520-mile Phase 1 route from San Francisco to the Los Angeles area, as well as construction of the Bakersfield-Merced line by 2022.

Virgin Trains USA projects

Permission granted by Virgin Trains USA


Virgin Trains USA has three major high-speed rail projects underway:

  • One connecting South Florida to Orlando International Airport ($4 billion).
  • A second, also in Florida, in the planning stage along the I-4 corridor from Orlando to Tampa.
  • The $4.8 billion XpressWest line connecting Victorville, California, to Las Vegas.

There is no firm price tag for the Orlando-Tampa line, but Virgin won permission last year from the Florida Department of Transportation to negotiate land leases along the route. The high-speed line would have at least three stations and take travelers from the airport all the way into downtown Tampa, with construction expected to generate about $2.5 billion of economic activity and 16,000 temporary jobs for the Central Florida region.

Negotiations, said Virgin spokesperson Katie Mizner, are still ongoing with the FDOT and other stakeholders involved in the Tampa extension.

Construction on the 170-mile Phase 2 segment connecting West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport, however, is in full swing despite the pandemic.

“The safety and security of our construction team is always our top priority and our entire team, along with our contractors, continue to follow the lead of the CDC and state and local health officials as it relates to coronavirus,” Mizner said.

Last year, Virgin hired a team of contractors, which include Granite Construction and Stacy and Witbeck, to tackle the expansion. Mizner said more than 750 workers are on the project with more expected to be added in the coming months.

Bridge work has started between the cities of Cocoa and West Palm Beach, she said, as well as work on many of the 155 at-grade crossings. Crews laid the first rail at the airport earlier this year and, in June, broke ground on a 109,000-square-foot vehicle maintenance facility there.

For the XpressWest Line between California and Las Vegas, she said, crews should break ground by the end of the year, although no contractor selections have been announced.

XpressWest scored a win last year when California lawmakers approved a $3.2 billion tax-exempt, fixed-rate revenue bond issuance to help DesertXpress, a Virgin affiliate, finance the California segment of the project. The California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank recently gave DesertXpress five additional months to sell the bonds to account for coronavirus-related delays.

In July, DesertXpress reached an agreement with the California Department of Transportation to lease the land along Interstate 15 where the rail will be built.

Texas Central bullet train

Permission granted by Texas Central


Texas Central’s $20 billion bullet train project has also made strides during the pandemic despite the March announcement that it had laid off 28 of its staff as a result of the outbreak.

In a statement to Construction Dive, Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar highlighted the “many milestones” that the rail has reached since the start of summer.

On May 7 an appeals court ruled in favor of Texas Central and affirmed the company’s assertions that it was both a railroad company and an interurban electric railway. This reversed the ruling made by the 87th District Court of Leon County, Texas. Whether Texas Central was a legitimate railroad company has been part of the argument that opponents of the project have made.

Also in May, the Federal Railroad Administration published a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project, Aguilar said, and in July the Surface Transportation Board gave the project the go-ahead. Next, he said, is the permitting process, then construction.

“Once we are permitted, Texas Central will create more than 17,000 jobs during construction and generate a multi-billion-dollar economic impact across the U.S. via contracts for U.S. steel mills and manufacturers, minority and women-owned businesses, veterans and rural businesses along the alignment,” he said in the statement.

Last fall, Texas Central announced that it had signed a design-build agreement for about $14 billion of work with the joint venture of Italian civil engineering contractor Salini Impregilo and The Lane Construction Corp., a U.S. division of Salini. The JV had already been working on early engineering and preconstruction tasks. Work under that contract also includes the design and construction of viaducts and embankments, installation of the track system and alignment and construction of maintenance and equipment facilities.