A freight train rolls past the Buena Park Metrolink station. Initially, bullet train service would be blended with the existing Metrolink network in Southern California. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / February 18, 2010)
By Ralph Vartabedian, Dan Weikel and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
November 2, 2011
The ambitious plan to connect Anaheim and San Francisco with high-speed trains has encountered plenty of obstacles, including intensifying resistance from wealthy and poor communities lying in the track’s path.
But the bullet train’s biggest threat could be its ballooning price tag, which this week doubled to an estimated $98 billion.
Backers on Tuesday announced a major strategy shift, unveiling a reworked blueprint for the first leg that would delay completion 13 years to 2033.
Proponents of the project say the higher cost of their proposal represents a more realistic outlook, adding billions of dollars for future contingencies and time for potential delays.
In addition, the new plan initially would blend bullet train service with the existing Metrolink network in Southern California and the Caltrain system in Northern California, stretching out the need for financial outlays and better using existing rail systems.
“This is not a train to nowhere,” said California High-Speed Rail Authority board member Dan Richards, a finance expert appointed to the rail agency’s board this summer by Gov. Jerry Brown. “It will be a train to where trains are waiting. That is the new strategy.”
The extended construction scheme still would begin next year with a controversial spine of track in the Central Valley, leading to initial operation of 220-mph trains to either San Jose or the San Fernando Valley in roughly a decade, officials said.
However, the new construction schedule would lead to dramatically higher costs at a time when California’s heavy debt load already has yielded one of the lowest credit ratings in the nation.
Opponents warned Tuesday that the system had become even more objectionable, and they vowed to redouble their efforts to kill the idea.
“The new projected cost to build California’s high-speed rail project is astronomical,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the House majority whip, whose district would be served by the rail. “But whether $43 billion or $100 billion, questions persist about the viability of the project.” McCarthy is pushing legislation to freeze federal funding until auditors examine the project’s feasibility.
The rail project had counted on Congress to provide the bulk of funding, but both the House and Senate in the last month have staunched the flow of money. About $3 billion in federal grants from the economic stimulus legislation is in hand, along with $9 billion
in funding from a bond measure passed by voters in 2008.
On Thursday, the authority is supposed to unveil a separate funding plan that would show how it would pay for the rest of the system.
The lack of certainty about the funding is likely to come under close scrutiny in the next 60 days as Brown and the Legislature weigh whether to appropriate the money to start construction next year.
Brown reiterated his support for the rail proposal on Tuesday, saying, “California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs…. The High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plan is solid and lays the foundation for a 21st century transportation system.”
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