Feds give state $202 million for high speed rail projects in Shafter

Sep. 25—A half dozen streets in the city of Shafter may soon find themselves marooned by traffic cones and detour signs.

Officials with the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced Monday that the federal government has given it $202 million for six construction projects in the city of Shafter.

The money will pay for the design and construction of grade separation projects — tunnels, viaducts and other structures that separate normal traffic from electric trains expected to run at speeds of up to 220 mph.

The six projects funded will be on the following streets: Central Avenue, Fresno Avenue, Lerdo Highway, Poplar Avenue, Riverside Street and Shafter Avenue.

For those in or near the city, don't expect any immediate changes. Officials said in a press release Monday they expect construction to start in August 2025 and take three years to complete.

"With the southernmost 22-mile stretch of active construction due to be complete this fall, this latest federal commitment represents a major step forward in our effort to deliver passenger service in California," CHSRA CEO Brian Kelly said in the release. "We look forward to this continued partnership with the Biden-Harris Administration."

The six new projects join 28 others currently underway along the 171-mile starter line between Bakersfield and Merced that the rail authority hopes to have operational by 2030.

According to the rail authority, 42 structures have been completed since construction began in 2015.

Continued funding for the rail authority has been a point of contention in years past. Last year's figures showed that California has paid for 85% of the project, compared with the 15% chipped in by the federal government — a difference of $11.5 billion.

The project, since its bond measure was approved in 2008 and construction started in 2013, has been plagued by delays: land negotiations, environmental clearance, winter storms and political forces that have bogged ambitions for a clean, electric rail system.

As delays have mounted, so have costs.

In an agency report released last year, the 171-mile starter segment between Bakersfield and Merced alone is expected to cost up to $35.3 billion, more than the total approved in 2008 to build the entire 500-mile route. Projections obtained by the New York Times last year indicated the rail system costs about $1.8 million per day.

This newest grant, the rail authority said, is the largest award it has received since the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021.

It comes a month after the rail authority and city officials in Wasco celebrated the completion of the Poso Drive underpass, a $7 million project that for years stymied traffic between the city's industrial zone and Highway 43.

Past its original completion date and well over budget, the project has faced repeated setbacks and financial constraints. But officials said in an email Monday that construction among the initial 119-mile corridor between Madera and northwest Kern is nearly complete.

Following that, crews will continue north into Merced and south in Bakersfield, which will complete the 171-mile line and five stations where officials hope to start laying track by 2024 and begin trials in 2028.

The authority's board of directors also approved last month a plan to begin screening vendors who can build and maintain the electric trains. They hope to select a vendor by early 2024.

Nearly 422 miles between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin has been "environmentally cleared" for the rail line, according to the rail authority. That does not include the rail alignment between Palmdale and Burbank.