Courtesy California High Speed Rail Authority
A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
The price tag for California's ambitious high-speed rail project has dropped to $68.4 billion, a $30 billion decline over a highly criticized draft released last fall, a source familiar with the plan confirmed late Friday.
The first full section of track will now stretch from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, a significant expansion of the initial phase that eliminates the so-called "train to nowhere" between two small Central Valley cities.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority had scheduled a news conference for Monday to announce its updated business plan, but The Sacramento Bee reported some of the key details late Friday night.
A source familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly confirmed the drop in price and relayed other elements of the updated plan to The Associated Press.
The rail project, authorized by voters in 2008, has been criticized since the rail authority released a draft plan last November that gave a jaw-dropping price of $98 billion to build the initial phase, which did not even include connections to the state capital or San Diego. The total cost had been projected to be $43 billion when voters approved the seed money four years ago.
The price explosion has led to a referendum drive to halt the project at the ballot box and prompted Republican members of Congress to cut off further funding for the project.
California will receive $3.5 billion in federal money if the state breaks ground this year with an initial segment in the Central Valley.
The updated business plan expands the initial, 130-mile Madera-to-Bakersfield section into a 300-mile section from the northern San Joaquin Valley to the San Fernando Valley, on the doorstep of downtown Los Angeles. That section would include trains moving at the top speed of 220 mph and would be completed within 10 years.
Another key feature of the revised plan is to halt the high-speed lines, at least initially, just outside Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, then make improvements to existing rail service there. That would include electrifying some of those lines.
Nearly $2 billion would be provided for improving local rail systems so they could hook up with the high-speed rail network, in what the rail authority is referring to as a "blended approach." Combining the high-speed system with existing urban commuter rail is expected to be a significant cost savings.
Accelerating work on the overall project also is expected to save money by cutting the construction time.
The rail authority board is expected to consider the revised plan on April 12. Gil Duran, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, declined comment because the plan has not been officially released.
Since becoming governor last year, Brown has tried to reset the troubled project, installing two new members of the board, including Dan Richard, its new chairman. Richard and the governor had indicated that the eventual price was likely to be considerably lower than the $98 billion cited in the draft report.
Supporters have said private operators could run the system without more taxpayer money, but the state auditor said there is no backup plan if the rail system doesn't immediately turn a profit. Other concerns include the project's engineering, ridership projections and fares, which rail officials said would be low enough to compete with airfares.