California’s High-Speed Rail Sets New Standard for Green Infrastructure

Ambitious sustainability practices are paying off—not costing more—for California’s High-Speed Railway Project.

California’s High-Speed Rail Sets New Standard for Green Infrastructure

  1. Net-zero greenhouse gas and criteria pollutant emissions in construction
  2. 100% renewable energy for operation
  3. Net-Zero Energy, LEED Platinum Facilities
  4. Planning for climate change adaptation
  5. Prioritizing life-cycle considerations

Here at the California High Speed Rail Authority, we recognize that this massive infrastructure program is not only being built in an internationally-recognized sustainable manner, it’s also starting to lead the way for future construction in California.

And Californians have overwhelmingly spoken to us that not only is this the right way to build a project of this magnitude, it is the responsible way.

Margaret CederothOn the surface, it may seem like we are grappling with competing objectives: Our Board members remain committed to working within the parameters of our sustainability goals, while at the same time being good stewards of the taxpayer dollar.

The surprising fact here is that since we have committed ourselves to a set of incredibly ambitious sustainability goals, we are finding that it is not true that implementing and requiring the best practices in sustainability drives up program costs.

This point is underscored in our Annual Sustainability Report, issued in December 2017. This report details the value realized through sustainability approaches, explains the progress on specific steps to realize commitments, and identifies the contribution of the program to state climate and sustainability goals.

Some of the measures we have taken, for example, such as recycling 99 percent of our concrete, actually help lower costs by avoiding landfill fees and reusing product that we would not need to purchase separately, while at the same time, lowering our carbon footprint.

2016 Materials Management

Many of the practices we are also looking at implementing in the future, such as passive design practices, deliver operational savings with no additional capital cost. They are simply smart, sustainable approaches that will provide benefits for the life of the project.

When it comes to construction, it’s important to consider the full costs of doing “business as usual” against the benefits of these sustainable practices.  For example, we all know that construction equipment is necessary to build the high-speed rail system. Newer equipment, with cleaner engines and filtration systems means fewer air quality emissions produced and cleaner air on and adjacent to the project site.

Pollutant Emissions

The contractor benefits from having long-term contracts that allow them to purchase new equipment, which in turn helps them build their fleet so that it is compliant with California regulation.  They avoid fines, and the community gets cleaner air.

While the cost of equipment is passed on to us as the owner, we avoid paying for additional air quality mitigation.  We embedded all of these sustainability practices and requirements into all our contracts from the beginning, which means a level playing field for all contractors.


View the presentation from the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s January 2018 Board meeting.


Some of our more innovative approaches to sustainability include the program’s 30 percent small business participation goal. That number is higher than just about every other major infrastructure project in California, and it helps to ensure that we are actively involving local small businesses in construction of the project.

A good example of one of those small businesses is Outback Materials in Fresno. Because of our project, they have been able to expand their business, buy new equipment, and spend and hire local workers in an area of the state that has been slow to recover from the economic recession of 2008. (You can see more about Outback here in this short video on YouTube about their participation in the high-speed rail program)

Another innovation would be our requirement for greater disclosure about the major materials being used on the project: concrete and steel.  We started requiring this of contractors in 2014 (Construction Package 4), so that we had relevant data about our supply chain, and could consider reasonable targets for improving the environmental aspects of materials.

Now, under Assembly Bill 262, passed by the California Legislature in 2017, these types of disclosure documents (environmental product declarations) will be required for many other types of infrastructure projects.

Finally, we work closely with our sister agencies and transit providers to exchange knowledge on best practices, learn from their experience and share details on our approaches, such as the uptake of Tier 4 equipment, contractor reporting, and sustainable procurement practices.

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