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Calif. set to release $68.4B high-speed rail plan

By Gosia Wozniacka

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 2 2012 10:20 a.m. MDT

FRESNO, Calif. — California's ambitious plans to build a north-to-south high-speed rail system are expected to get a jumpstart Monday when the authority overseeing the project releases an updated blueprint for construction and financing.

The plan was nearly derailed last fall after a draft plan said the project's cost had more than doubled to $98 billion. The latest plan, to be formally released at a train depot in Fresno, lowers the price to $68.4 billion, expands the initial segment and accelerates the construction schedule. Winning over skeptical lawmakers will be the authority's next challenge.

"We feel good that we've addressed a lot of the public concerns," said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "We feel this is a very, very reasonable and workable path forward for the state."

The new business plan trims $30 billion off the price tag the authority announced just five months ago, and Gov. Jerry Brown will make the case for the rail project when he asks the Legislature in the coming weeks to appropriate $2.3 billion in rail bonds to begin constructing the first phase by year's end.

Brown ordered the board to rethink its previous proposal as polls show a majority of voters would like to reconsider the $9 billion in startup funding they authorized for the network in 2008.

The updated plan relies heavily on improving existing rail lines in urban areas instead of building dedicated track the whole way. The first segment would link the northern San Joaquin Valley to the San Fernando Valley by 2022, expanding on what originally had been proposed as a 130-mile Madera-to-Bakersfield section that critics had lampooned as a "train to nowhere."

Nearly $2 billion in upgrades would be made to existing commuter rail lines in the state's urban corridors.

The so-called "blended" system would still move travelers from Los Angeles' Union Station to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes at speeds up to 220 mph, as voters were promised when they authorized the bullet train system four years ago, Richard said.

Eventually, riders will not have to change trains when riding between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he said.

"Every step of the way, we will be connected to something and be able to improve service in the intermediate level while building out" a bigger system, Richard said of the "blended system."

Officials said that the system would turn a profit even with lower ridership numbers in the revised plan.

A summary of the plan released to The Associated Press on Sunday says that by getting the first segment built within 10 years, the positive cash flow from will serve as a "launching pad" for private investment in the construction and operation of the full system.

The new plan also assumes an additional $4 billion from the federal government over the next 10 years, despite significant congressional opposition. The bulk of the remaining cost would come from fares and private financing, with any shortfall bridged by tapping into California's new industrial "cap-and-trade" program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics say the numbers still won't pencil out, although they hadn't seen the revised proposal.

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, Assembly Republicans' point person on the high-speed rail issue, said the authority's changing plans should lead lawmakers to block the sale of the bonds for the project.

"The entire high-speed rail project needs to go back to the drawing board," she said.

Associated Press writers Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif., and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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