Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

By David Siders

Building California's high speed rail project could cost $98.5 billion over 20 years, more than twice what was previously thought, according to a draft copy of a business plan obtained late Monday by The Bee.

The amount is still far less than the cost of expanding airport and highway systems to accommodate the state's growing population, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said in the report. Even with conservative ridership and cost estimates, it said, the system will operate at a profit.

In the plan, the authority recommits to starting construction in the Central Valley, a source of controversy because it is far from California's population centers. The authority would start construction a year from now on the project's first segment, from Bakersfield to near Chowchilla.

It would push completion of the full, San Francisco-to-Los Angeles area line back to 2033.

The plan comes at a critical time for the project, whose management and cost have come under heavy criticism since voters approved $9 billion in rail bonds in 2008.

The report follows by two months Gov. Jerry Brown's suggestion he could help authority officials "get their act together," and the document represents his administration's influence on the project. After the Democratic governor appointed two advisers to the rail authority board, the business plan's release was delayed while those advisers, Mike Rossi and Dan Richard, reviewed it.

"This project will create 100,000 jobs at a time when we really need them and link the growing population centers of California without the huge expense and intractable problems of massive highway and airport expansion," Brown said in a prepared statement provided to The Bee.

The cost of the project, $65.4 billion in 2010 dollars or $98.5 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, far exceeds the authority's previous estimate of $43 billion. The authority characterized the cost estimate as conservative.

"We have not tried to sugar-coat or to hide what is our view of what it's going to cost to actually build this thing," Richard said.

The plan calls for phased implementation, proposing segments that could be used alone if the project is stalled. The Central Valley line, for example, could be used by Amtrak if construction is halted before it is expanded to the San Fernando Valley or San Jose.

Authority officials said that expanded segment, on which high speed trains would first be operated, could be finished within 10 years.

The authority envisions using regional rail lines going into the Bay Area and Los Angeles areas, potentially reducing political opposition to construction in those areas.


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