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Shocker: The $68 Billion Bullet Train Will Probably Go Over Budget And Past Deadline
In a development that surprises few, a report finds that California's ambitious high-speed rail project will probably go over budget and past deadline. The main culprit? The mountains just outside of Los Angeles.The first phase of the rail, which will go from Los Angeles and San Francisco when finally complete, will link Burbank to Merced and require tunneling dozens of miles through the San Gabriel and Tehachapi Mountain ranges. However, the California High-Speed Rail Authority still hasn't decided which specific route they're going to take through those mountains, and tunneling through it could get pretty tricky.
"The range is far more complex than anything those people know," Caltech geologist Leon Silver told the L.A. Times. The mountains sit on the boundary between the North American and Pacific Plates, and as a result it's a complex mess of rock types and fault lines. The Rail Authority hopes to have the tunneling done by 2022, but experts say that it's highly unlikely they meet that deadline. "My first gut reaction is that it is doable, but given the complex geology it is optimistically biased," said Cornell University-based tunneling expert Thomas O'Rourke. "There are a lot of unknowns. It is going to depend on the complexity of the geology and the ground conditions."
"I don't think it is possible," said MIT civil engineer Herbert Einstein.
The variations in rocks would delay the drilling process, as crews would potentially have to change the machinery each time they encountered a different rock type—a process that could take up to eight hours each time. If the Authority winds up choosing the longest of the proposed routes through the mountains, the earliest experts say it could be done would be 2026.
Traversing across the numerous faults, including some that haven't been mapped, further complicates the tunneling process and also puts the project at risk. A report from 2013 by the main project management contractor stated that the route crossing the faults would be "hazardous."
"Faults are notorious for causing trouble," said James Monsees, a tunneling expert.
On the bureaucratic side of things, the Authority is already behind on acquiring land needed for the stretch between Burbank and Merced, only owning a "small fraction" of the parcels they need for that 300 mile stretch. Officials are also behind on acquiring the necessary permits and securing financing for the massive project, and face a slew of litigation that will inevitably add more delays and costs.
"You have an 80% to 90% probability of a cost overrun on a project like this," said Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, an expert on megaproject risk. "Once cost increases start, they are likely to continue."
It was only earlier this summer that construction started in on the rail's first stage, near Fresno. Construction was originally planned to start two-and-a-half years earlier in 2012.