California approves bullet train link from Central Valley to Bay Area. Here’s what it means for housing, jobs

Plans for a bullet-train line that could zip commuters between the Central Valley and Silicon Valley — linking the low-income region and its affordable housing with higher-paying tech jobs on the coast — took a major step forward this week as rail officials signed off on the 90-mile extension.

The High Speed ​​Rail Authority Board unanimously approved plans and environmental clearance for the segment between San Jose and Merced on Thursday. Now, the agency estimates the line will open for service in 2031, though the project has faced repeated delays and cost overruns.

Construction has been under way in the Central Valley for about seven years, but the rail board’s vote is novel in the sense that it’s the first time plans to extend train tracks to a coastal region have been approved.

The train system could take riders between Fresno and San Jose in about an hour, a roughly three-hour drive by car today. Dan Richard, a former chairman of the Rail Authority Board who resigned in 2019, said the extension will help California address a jobs-housing mismatch between the disparate regions.

“Really, this state is divided between the coastal and the inland areas,” he said. “A key element of high-speed rail, apart from being a fast choo-choo train, is the ability to meld the entire state together and to balance our more under-developed areas with the more prosperous ones.”

From the outset, supporters of the project pitched the bullet train as a way to connect the state’s low-income interior with its prosperous coast. State and regional leaders said the Merced-San Jose extension moving forward will help California realize that vision.

“Completion of this critically important high-speed rail project helps the state expand economic opportunity and affordable housing, two critical goals for all of us,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement.

The segment would be part of the rail project’s 500-mile Phase 1, which aims to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. With approval of the Silicon Valley extension, nearly 400 miles of that first phase has been approved.

California voters approved $9.95 billion in bond funding for high-speed rail in 2008, with the promise that money would be used to help build a 220-mph train to deliver riders between the state’s biggest regions in under three hours.

But the project has faced ridicule over repeated construction delays and soaring costs, with its total budget growing from $33 billion to about $105 billion in the Rail Authority’s latest business plan. Trains were initially supposed to start running in 2020. Now, the agency doesn’t anticipate the first trains will start running in the Central Valley until 2029.

Originally, the Rail Authority planned to build track inward from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, including the line running east from Silicon Valley. Gov. Gavin Newsom stunned many state legislators and rail advocates two years ago when he announced he would focus first on the Central Valley line due largely to rising costs.

In that sense, approval of the Merced-San Jose segment this week was a jolt of momentum for rail supporters, who’ve struggled to repair the project’s image in the wake of discontent over the Central Valley-first approach.

Brian Kelly, the High Speed ​​Rail Authority’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that the vote is a “major milestone and brings us one step closer to delivering high-speed rail between the Silicon Valley and the Central Valley.”

Rail officials have long stressed that planning for extensions to the Bay Area and LA has never stopped, despite the agency running track in the Central Valley first.

Despite the Rail Authority’s challenges, polling suggests most voters haven’t shunned the project. The Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies released a survey this month that found 56% of registered voters supported continuing construction on the train, even if the Central Valley segment is built first, while 35% opposed it.

The section approved this week will connect San Jose’s Diridon Station and a station in downtown Gilroy to the five-station Central Valley segment from Merced to Bakersfield, the project’s initial 171-mile stretch.

Rick Harnish, executive director of the High Speed ​​Rail Alliance, a national advocacy group, said the move underscores how the Rail Authority has not lost sight of its ultimate goal of connecting coastal and inland areas — and creating a system that spans physical and economic barriers.

“This is the first rail crossing of Pacheco Pass, which changes the economic geography of the state,” Harnish said, referring to the mountain range between the Central Valley and Silicon Valley. “This is a huge step forward.”

Rail authority officials said the rail is currently under construction at 35 active job sites along 119 miles in California’s Central Valley.

A second phase in the Bay Area — from San Jose to San Francisco — is expected to gain its environmental clearance this summer, according to the authority. It’s projected to open for service in 2033. Plans for that segment call for high-speed rail stops at San Francisco International Airport, the Caltrain Mission Bay station at Fourth and King streets and, eventually, at the basement of Salesforce Transit Center.

High-speed rail will share train tracks on the Peninsula with Caltrain, and the commuter rail is in the process of electrifying its tracks. The most construction-intensive portion of the San Jose-to-Merced segment involves tunneling a 15-mile stretch of tracks through Pacheco Pass in the Diablo Range.

High-speed rail is one major component of an ambitious set of plans by the region’s transit agencies to connect Northern California by rail. The Salesforce Transit Center would also potentially link with a second Transbay Tube that could expand the BART system. That vision, however, is years, if not decades, from becoming reality and lacks the funding to make it happen.

Meanwhile, headwinds facing the statewide high-speed rail project haven’t subsided, either. For starters, it remains unclear how California will pay for the full cost of the train — and Newsom and some state legislators are deeply at odds over his strategy for the project.

Newsom’s latest budget proposal once again asks the Legislature to approve $4.2 billion in bond funding to complete construction of the train’s initial segment from Merced to Bakersfield. The money reflects the remainder of the funding that voters approved in 2008.

But the governor’s request still face resistance among some powerful lawmakers, who argue the focus on building the train’s Central Valley segment first is a far cry from the original vision sold to voters. They have pushed to instead spend a chunk of the money to improve commuter rail systems in the state’s most populous regions.

Lauren Hernández, Ricardo Cano and Dustin Gardiner are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:,, Twitter: @ByLHernandez, @ByRicardoCano, @dustingardiner

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