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Lawmaker feels 'shock,' 'anxiety' over bullet train's price tag

State Senate photoSen. Alan Lowenthal

For years, a Long Beach lawmaker prodded the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority to come clean about the actual cost of building California’s ambitious bullet train system.

Then last week, the authority published its latest business plan, with the latest cost figure for building the bullet train system – $98.5 billion, triple the 2008 estimate and nearly equal to the entire state annual budget.

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal’s reaction to this hefty price tag?

“Shock,” the veteran Democrat said in a recent phone interview. That was followed by “anxiety.”

And that, he said, was followed by the realization that, however haltingly, the rail authority had taken “a major step forward” in attempting to address issues of “fiscal accountability” that critics had raised for years.

”I have been asking since 2007 to really have a dialogue over their business and financial plans and for them to justify their numbers, before we actually spend money,” Lowenthal said.

“The authority has not addressed all the issues,” he said, “but I think they’re trying at last to be responsive.”

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The high-speed rail project would link California’s major cities with bullet trains traveling at 100 mph. It’s envisioned as an attractive transportation alternative for 21st-century California – more convenient than flying or driving. Building the project would create thousands of jobs and make construction of new freeways and airport runways unnecessary, boosters say. Construction would get under way this year in the Central Valley.

But almost since the bullet train was first proposed, critics have said the rail authority was lowballing construction costs while ignoring just how difficult it might be to find enough taxpayer money to build the system.

Few accused the rail authority of underestimating the construction costs in the latest business plan.

And, for the first time, the rail authority said the project would be built in phases, as funding became available.

Lowenthal said that was a more realistic approach to a project that lacks a “dedicated revenue stream.”

He said he also was encouraged because the rail authority seemed to be “embracing a blended plan” that would integrate the bullet train with existing rail systems, including the commuter rail service on the San Francisco Peninsula. That wasn’t always the way the project was envisioned.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but time is not our friend,” Lowenthal said. “We have only a few months to take this draft and ask them critical questions and get some answers about whether what we are doing is fiscally responsible. Right now, I am a little nervous.”

He said he looked to both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer to scrutinize the plan; both have asked tough questions about rail finance issues in the past. Lowenthal said he hopes to hold a legislative hearing on the plan as well.

In the bullet train, “there is a tremendous potential upside and downside,” he said. “And (the rail authority) has got to confront this issue and not sugarcoat it and say, ‘Don’t worry, the money will be there.’ ”

Meanwhile, critics who have spent the last few days reading the 230-page business plan say California’s bullet train would be the most expensive rail line ever constructed.

The business plan says the 520-mile “Bay to Basin” section of the system – the link between San Francisco and Los Angeles – would cost as much as $75 billion. That’s about $144 million per mile.

The entire 800-mile system – from Sacramento to San Diego – would cost $98.5 billion, or about $123 million per mile.

Nothing in rail history approaches that cost, said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation and a critic of the rail authority’s approach to high-speed rail.

In an interview, Tolmach said the most expensive bullet train construction project on record was a stretch of the German rail line from Frankfurt to Cologne that crossed the rugged Taunus Mountains. The project required extensive tunneling, he said, and wound up costing as much as $60 million per mile, he said. But the rest of the German project was far less costly, he said.

Recent Spanish rail construction was priced at about $22 million per mile, he said, and French and Chinese rail projects were less than that, he said.

What boosts the price tag for California is the extensive use of bridges and viaducts in the design, Tolmach said. The project envisions about 140 miles of elevated structures – at a construction cost that’s five times what it would cost to lay track on the ground.

"That’s specifically what inflates the price to (almost) $100 billion,” he said. “They’ve made a decision (that) high-speed rail is not built on the ground – it’s built on viaducts.”

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