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Bullet train officials to OK new business plan

California High-Speed Rail Authority

High-speed rail officials are expected tomorrow to approve a business plan that details how they hope to pay for a proposed passenger train line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board will meet in San Francisco to hear testimony about the 212-page plan – a revised blueprint of expected costs for construction and operation, as well as anticipated revenue and ridership.

The business plan will be closely scrutinized by California legislators, who are being asked to OK about $2.7 billion in bonds to help pay for the initial construction in the San Joaquin Valley.

A November version of the plan estimated the cost of building a dedicated 520-mile system of tracks from San Francisco to Anaheim – to be used only by high-speed trains – at more than $98 billion.

The revised plan calls for a “blended” network in which existing and upgraded commuter rail lines in the Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin would share their tracks with the high-speed trains. That program reduces the miles of dedicated high-speed-only tracks by about 110 miles – a change that authority officials say will cut about $30 billion. The cost of the blended system is pegged at about $68.4 billion.

Also new is an effort to ditch the “train to nowhere” label that critics applied to the first $6 billion stretch of construction from Madera to Bakersfield. Now, the authority hopes to extend construction in continuous phases north to Merced and south across the Tehachapi Mountains to Palmdale and on into the San Fernando Valley within 10 years. That would form a $31 billion, 300-mile “initial operating segment” on which the first 220 mph trains would carry passengers starting in 2022.

“It’s not just about building a high-speed train,” authority Chairman Dan Richard said as he discussed the plan with reporters this month. “We’re using the high-speed rail program as the driver for a strategic investment across the board in our transportation infrastructure.”

Among other benefits, Richard said, are that high-speed trains would take passenger traffic off of freight tracks, improving freight capacity. And, by continuing high-speed rail across the Tehachapi range, a passenger rail gap that exists between the Valley and Southern California will be closed.

As in previous incarnations of the business plan, the rail authority expects the federal government – which has thus far ponied up about $3.3 billion to start construction in the Central Valley – to contribute about $20 billion more in the coming decade.

As Republicans in Congress fight against putting more money toward high-speed rail, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Department of Finance have proposed using money from California’s new cap-and-trade program as a backstop if other funding sources fall short. Cap-and-trade money comes from the sale of air pollution credits to industries that are unable to meet pollution reduction goals. Brown’s 2012-13 budget suggests that the program could generate $1 billion or more next year.

A major question continues to be: If the system is built, can it attract enough riders for it to break even or make a profit? Proposition 1A, the $9 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2008, prohibits any operating subsidy for the high-speed system.

Ridership estimates in the revised business plan suggest that even under unfavorable conditions – flat population growth, low airline prices, low fuel prices, more fuel-efficient cars and other factors that make airplanes and driving more attractive to travelers – high-speed trains could sell about 5.8 million tickets a year in 2025 on a Merced-to-San Fernando line.

Higher airfares, more expensive gas and other factors could drive ridership in 2025 to as many as 10.5 million.

Some critics remain skeptical.

“The ridership model continues to have significant issues that raise questions about its commercial viability,” said a statement released yesterday by Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a Bay Area organization. “Current revenues from the San Joaquin Amtrak service that includes service to Sacramento and many different stations total $30 million. The (initial operating segment) will need revenues that are 10 times that amount to break even for a skeletal system.”

Richard, however, is bullish on the program.

“We would not be issuing this final plan,” he said, “were we not confident that this initial operating segment will operate at a profit.”

The reporter can be reached at 559-441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter. This story resulted from a partnership among California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, U-T San Diego, KQED, the Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and The Modesto Bee.


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