California high-speed rail authorities say they can build it 'Better, faster, cheaper' - $68 billion

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California’s high speed rail chief Dan Richard told a news conference in Fresno Monday that the new blueprint for a bullet train meets Governor Brown’s challenge to “make the plan better, faster and cheaper.”

It’s $30-billion cheaper than the plan released last year. Richard said that’s because this one upgrades existing tracks for Metrolink and other local commuter rail lines instead of building all news tracks. Richard said this “blended approach” accelerates the time line.

“Ten years from today, starting here in Fresno, you can get on a high speed rail train and arrive in the San Fernando Valley in one hour and 45 minutes - which is half the travel time on your best day going by car. ” Richard said.

Critics derided the initial high speed rail plan to build first in the Central Valley as “a train to nowhere.” But with the blended approach, the train will go south to Palmdale to connect with the LA area. Richard says more people will use it right away, which will mean more revenue and more private investment. That’s important because voters approved just $9 billion in bonds for the $68.4 billion project.

The federal government has pitched in a grant for $3.5 billion that evaporates if California decides not to build this year. The state has to match the federal money with $2.7 billion in state bonds. The High Speed Rail Authority needs to convince a majority of legislators to OK the bonds and hopes the new business plan will help.

“I can say that this (plan) is greatly improved.” said Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-OC). “I anxiously wait to see where the funding’s going to come from” she added.

Harkey has introduced a bill that would cut off state funding for high speed rail. The Orange County Republican gave the rail authority points for planning to invest $2 billion in existing commuter lines but she says it just goes to show that maybe that’s all the rail California needs right now.

“We have rail.” Harkey said. “We need regional rail. We can get from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We can’t get to work.”

Some Democrats are also wondering about the high speed rail project’s future.

“I just want to make sure it’s done right. And this project has not been done right heretofore.” said Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), one of the key lawmakers the authority needs to convince to get initial state funding. “The Brown Administration and the governor personally has put a lot of work into fixing the sins of the past. But there’s a lot to do in a short period of time. So we’ll work with him but we’ve got to make sure that we really understand the numbers.”

Board member Mike Rossi says he ran risk models for high speed rail ad nauseam over the last six months and ”In all scenarios calculated, including a 30-percent increase in expenses and a 30-percent reduction in revenues, no subsidy was required.”

Rossi knows a bit about calculating risk. He did it for years for Bank of America. “ As a result of this experience I believe this plan is credible, reasonable and transparent.” Rossi said.

The revised bullet train blueprint also counts on additional $4 billion from the federal government in the next decade. But this version has a backup plan in case the money fails to materialize. California lawmakers could dip into sales revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade system.

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey observed that funding stream might produce only a trickle. “This is all very speculative” she said. “We don’t know if we’re going to make money or lose money on cap-and-trade.”

The full high speed rail authority board will decide whether to approve the plan at a meeting in San Francisco next week. If they do, lawmakers are expected to consider whether to fund it later this month.

Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) another key Democrat the High Speed Rail Authority needs to win over issued a written statement after the released of the revised plan. “This FOURTH version of the business plan is better than the third, which was better than the second which was only marginally better than the first.“ But Lowenthal added, “Overall, I applaud the High Speed Rail Authority for addressing many of the concerns of the Legislature and I look forward to working with them to make high speed rail a reality.”

Construction of the initial operating line in Central Valley would begin in 2013.

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