Tuesday, May 1, 2012
CalHighSpeedRail Says Train Will Cost Under $100Billion and Launch Sooner With Revisions
HighSpeedRail recent New Conference: Promising "improvements" to the state's controversial bullet train plan, the new head of the project told a Senate hearing in Silicon Valley on Tuesday he now believes building high-speed rail would cost less than the alarming estimate of nearly $100 billion. "I believe the number's coming down," Dan Richard told a packed auditorium Tuesday night. "Obviously the $98 billion was sticker shock for a lot of people." Using existing tracks like Caltrain and speeding up the construction schedule would bring down the costs of the project, Richard said in defending the much-criticized plan that Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed him to revive. He also promised quicker upgrades to Bay Area and Los Angeles commuter lines that would share the track and upgrading the initial leg of track in the Central Valley. Richard said the project's first segment in the Central Valley -- dismissed by some as a $6 billion "train to nowhere" will be tweaked to offer more "immediate benefits," but he offered no specifics. He also vowed to spend some $750 million in state funds in the next few years to help electrify the Caltrain line (SFBay Area commuter train) and $1 billion for similar commuter rail upgrades in Southern California, laying the foundation for bullet trains in those regions. The state's new plan will call for launching train service sooner by breaking the 520-mile line into "bite-sized" segments that can be built quicker. Previous estimates had delayed full service between Richard did not shed light on the fact that California does not have about 85 percent of the funding needed to build the train. "I don't think we'll be able to look (the Legislature) or the public in the eye and tell them that we have any greater clarity about the funding today," Richard said. He did, however, defend estimates that enough passengers will ride the train to turn a profit. Richard testified before key Senate Democrats and a packed house at the 600-seat Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts during a rare Silicon Valley hearing on the project. The California High-Speed Rail Authority in the next two weeks will release a final business plan that will give a more detailed look at everything from costs to funding to rider estimates. Major changes are expected after the preliminary plan included huge cost increases and steep drops in expected rider counts. That led to a slew of criticism from nonpartisan analysts and a drop in support in polls among a majority of likely voters. The Legislature will debate the plan over the following two months before voting in June on whether to spend $2.7 billion to match $3.3 billion in federal funds to start building in the Central Valley early next year. Lawmakers would have to approve spending on the upgrades in the Bay Area and Southern California in future years. Democratic Sens. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, and Mark DeSaulnier of Walnut Creek, asked pointed questions but could not get Richard or fellow project board member Jim Hartnett of Redwood City to offer specifics on the forthcoming plan. The Legislative Analyst's Office said Tuesday that it is still concerned about the lack of funding, the need for upgrades in major metro areas and that officials haven't accurately compared the huge cost of the bullet train to alternative investments. Will Kempton, who leads the project's independent peer review group, said the state should start building in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, not the Central Valley. That way, if California receives no more funding, it could at least upgrade popular commuter lines. "Those investments will not be lost," Kempton said. But Richard disputed that. "The words 'train to nowhere' may have escaped my lips before I" came on the board, Richard said. "But I believe today that it's the right place to start." Dozens or potentially hundreds of people were expected to speak late Tuesday into Wednesday morning to slam or tout the project. Construction workers held signs touting the project and were opposed by naysayers armed with "kill high-speed rail" fliers.