The decision to build the first leg of California's bullet train north to the San Francisco Bay Area instead of south as planned since 2012 marks an acknowledgement of the project's waning political support and an ongoing funding shortfall for a system that spans the state.
Officials said Thursday that the first 250-mile segment, from north of Bakersfield to San Jose, would begin operating in 2025, three years later than the previous plan that called for trains to run from Merced to the San Fernando Valley by 2022. It is also 50 miles shorter.
The shift allows officials to put off the costly and hotly debated plan to tunnel through the Tehachapi Mountains, which has drawn intense opposition from residents.
"The math is pretty clear," said Dan Richard, chairman of the board that oversees the project. "It's just longer and more expensive to get to LA. And looking at the available funds, we just couldn't get there."
Backers said the plan lets the state build an operating portion of the line without relying on additional money that might never come. Supporters hope construction will generate momentum and private investment to pay for the rest of the project south to the Los Angeles area.
The plans detailed Thursday reflect the political realities that have confronted the project in the years since 2008, when voters approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail network linking Northern and Southern California. The last business plan, approved in 2014, called for the entire 520-mile system to be finished in 2028 at a cost of $68 billion.
Richard said Thursday that the new plan lowers the projected cost to $64 billion, and it calls for completion in 2029.
The price change and direction of the rail line were first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.
The reversal could cause other political problems. Some Southern California Democrats agreed to give the bullet train a quarter of future revenues from the state's pollution fees in exchange for additional spending in Southern California.
Among them was Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who said in a statement Thursday that he supports the new plan because it makes sense to build "high-speed rail first where infrastructure already exists."
But incoming Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said he was concerned. "This project is meant to connect the south to the north — neglecting the south would be unacceptable," Rendon said in a statement.
Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the announcement is the first time officials are laying out a plan to build and operate a segment that does not rely on new money.
But the new plan also calls for state officials to ask the federal government for another $2.9 billion to extend high-speed tracks 20 miles south into Bakersfield and 50 miles north into San Francisco. Republicans who control Congress have not only been unwilling to offer further high-speed rail funding, they have sought repeatedly to repeal about $3 billion in federal stimulus funding allocated for the project by President Barack Obama's administration.
The longer construction timeline was also reflected in lower revenue and ridership projections released later Thursday. The business plan showed estimated ridership of 2.2 million to 4.1 million in 2025, which would be the first year of operation, compared with 7.4 million to 14 million projected in the 2014 plan.
Lawmakers who have been critical of the project already were skeptical.
George Runner, a Republican member of the state Board of Equalization, said the decision to change course only delays the authority's problems.
"The High-Speed Rail Authority is desperate and wants to lay as much track as possible so that it becomes more difficult to stop the project," he said in a statement. "The Tehachapi Mountains won't disappear because the authority decided to change plans."
Voters who approved selling bonds for high-speed rail were told the nation's first high-speed trains would whisk travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes, and the system would operate without a government subsidy. It was also pitched as a stand-alone system that would not have to share tracks with other rail lines, which has led to legal challenges after high-speed rail officials adopted a plan that blends high-speed service with commuter rail.
Nadia Naik, one of the founders of a San Francisco Bay Area group called Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, was skeptical that federal lawmakers will be willing to commit another $2.9 billion just to complete the first useable route.
"What businessperson wants to pay the extra $2.9 billion to get from San Francisco to Bakersfield? No offense to Bakersfield," Naik said.
She also criticized the authority for for not debating the policy changes in the business plan at a public board meeting.
High-speed rail officials said there is a 60-day public comment period, after which the board will consider the plan.
Richard and Morales said ticket prices remain unchanged from previous estimates.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Cooper and Alison Noon also contributed to this report.