By David Siders
dsiders@sacbee.com
Published: Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Monday, Oct. 31, 2011 – 6:28 am

For California’s high-speed rail project, it’s been an inauspicious autumn.

Disparaged for its lack of public outreach, the California High-Speed Rail Authority hired a new deputy director for communications and public policy, Lance Simmens, who introduced himself to Kings County residents – and YouTube viewers everywhere – by falling asleep at a public meeting.

The authority board delayed releasing its much-awaited business plan and canceled luncheons with the Sacramento Press Club.

Twice.

When it tried to find a replacement for powerhouse public relations company Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide – which itself came under fire and is quitting its $9 million contract – the authority fumbled that, too, canceling the bid process and starting over.

But two months after Gov. Jerry Brown came out in support of the project and suggested that his administration could help rail officials “get their act together,” the authority contends it has. It will release a business plan Tuesday, including updated ridership and cost estimates.

“I think that this plan is going to go a long way in reassuring people that this is really a project that is in the best interest of every Californian,” said Simmens, who has apologized profusely for his Kings County snooze. “This is such a huge and monumental step forward to address the long-term needs … particularly the infrastructure needs of this state.”

The plan’s release comes at perhaps the most critical moment for California’s high-speed rail prospects since voters approved $9 billion in rail bonds in 2008. The release precedes a decision by the Legislature next year about whether to let the project proceed.

“This is a watershed moment for high-speed rail,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. “I think people are reasonably expecting that we get some good answers to hard questions, most obviously, ‘What’s it going to cost and how are we going to pay for it?’ ”

In a preview of its revised document, the authority said in a letter to lawmakers this month that private-sector investment is unlikely until after at least part of the project is operational. The position is more conservative than the authority maintained last year, which could benefit its reception by lawmakers immersed in California’s still-teetering budget.

But on the most controversial aspect of the rail authority’s plan – starting construction in the Central Valley, away from California’s population centers – the authority has given no indication it will bend. Nor has the federal government, which conditioned billions of dollars for the project to construction starting in the Central Valley.

The authority plans to start construction of a first segment, from Bakersfield to near Chowchilla, next fall.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the Long Beach Democrat who chairs the Senate select committee on high-speed rail, said the authority has provided no data to support its claim that high-speed rail in the Central Valley could succeed, and he is skeptical it will in its revised plan.

Lowenthal said he “may be wrong” but that, “I think members of both parties’ patience have been tried and tested. … They’re not just going to rubber-stamp this anymore.”

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