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Controversial California HSR PPP issues shortlist

Consortia including Dragados, Ferrovial and Kiewit have come to vie in the early stage of a multi-billion dollar high-speed rail (HSR) contract that would link Madera with Fresno. The project is part of a statewide $98bn HSR agenda that has politically and ideologically divided California.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has compiled a shortlist for phase one of its increasingly politically and publicly divisive bullet train project.

Consortia responding to a December request for qualifications (RFQ) include:

– California Backbone Builders – led by Spanish infrastructure conglomerate Ferrovial;

– California High-Speed Rail Partners – composed of engineering, procurement, construction and maintenance project management outfit Fluor, Skanska and PCL Constructors Canada;

– Grupo ACS business unit Dragados, Flatiron Construction and Shimmick Construction;

– Tutor Perini, Zachary Construction and Parsons Corporation.

The mandate, a public-private partnership (PPP), will entail building a 24-mile high-speed rail line in central California, from Madera to Fresno, at an estimated cost of between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. According to a spokeswoman for CHSRA, the project would also require a tunnel and bridge to cross the San Joaquin River.

Each team on the shortlist is invited to submit a design-build blueprint. The spokeswoman said a request for proposals (RFP) would “eventually” follow, perhaps as early as March.

The California High-Speed Rail project was conceived as an 800-mile, 15-stop rail line running from Sacramento to San Diego and capable of a 220-mile per hour travel speed. But the project has come under harsh bipartisan political criticism in addition to a lukewarm public reception.

The bulk of criticism has centred on the cost of the rail network, which has grown to $98 billion from an initial estimate of around $30 billion, as well as the two-decade-long timeframe to complete the project.

The criticism has led to the departure of top CHSRA staff, including chief executive Roelef van Ark and chairman Tom Umberg. In January, erstwhile Bay Area Rapid Transit head Dan Richard replaced Umberg.

Meanwhile, the Reason Foundation and government watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste have published a report claiming the rail would not gain a sizeable ridership and claiming high-speed rail safety is a murky issue.

Dale Bonner, founder of Cal-Infra Advisors, a consultancy specialising in public infrastructure in California, explained most of the criticism against the high-speed rail is “to suggest everything is fine without it”.

The federal government is helping to fund the project, with the California rail authority claiming private capital would also be a significant source of funding.