Approval of Calif. Bullet Train Changes Delayed

     SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Citing an influx of public comments, the California High Speed Rail Authority put off ratifying its controversial 2016 business plan until April 28, when the board is tentatively scheduled to convene in Sacramento.
     The business plan, required to be developed by the authority and approved by the Legislature every two years, made major changes to California’s high-speed rail plan — including the shift of phase 1 construction away from Southern California and toward Northern California.
     As presently construed, the plan calls for the first phase of construction to build a line and stations between the Central Valley and San Jose, with the terminus in a small Central Valley town just outside of Bakersfield. Originally, the first phase planned the Merced-to-Los Angeles line.
     Authority CEO Jeff Morales said his agency is hoping to have the Shafter-toSan Jose line up and running by 2025, with trains travelling at speeds of 240 miles per hour carrying passengers to and from various Central Valley locales into the Silicon Valley.
     A number of people participated in Thursday’s meeting, which was held at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors chambers in San Jose. Many of the speakers in attendance expressed worry that the authority’s plan to finance the enormously expensive public-works project is long on ambition but short on practical strategy.
     “It’s nice to be optimistic, but it’s important to be realistic as well,” one woman said during the public comment section.
     Authority member Dan Curtain also challenged staff to put more information about leveraging private investment during the design and build stages of phase 1.
     “There is potential for private investment at the earlier stages of the project,” he said.
     Funding has been a flashpoint for criticism since voters approved the construction of the bullet train through Proposition 1A in 2008, with cost projections for the entire project running between $68 and $81 billion.
     Proposition 1A required the system to be self-sustaining. But critics have questioned that prospect, saying the ridership and revenue estimates put forward by the authority in their business plans are pie-in-the-sky.
     California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office said the 2016 business plan contains “several uncertainties regarding the funding plan for phase 1, such as uncertainty regarding the future availability of cap-and-trade auction revenues to fund the project as planned.”
     But authority chair Dan Richard said the business plan presents “a clear path to building the first high speed rail in America.”
     He added, “Will there be challenges? Yes. Are there uncertainties? Yes. But this plan shows it can be done and will be done. I think it is something to be heralding and something to be excited about.”
     Despite the swirl of public criticism and the demand for more oversight by the Legislature, most of the speakers who attended Tuesday’s meeting were enthusiastic about the prospect of the high-speed rail coming to California.
     “We look forward to the extraordinary benefits of this project,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “We look forward to the environmental benefits that come from sensible land-use planning, but also the economic benefits of connecting the incredible jobs in Silicon Valley to other regions in the state.”
     Many of the members of the general public in San Jose also expressed zeal for the project, but cautioned that setting the tracks in some of the poorer neighborhoods undermined social justice.
     Representatives from the Central Valley touched on similar concerns, and said the impact the rail infrastructure project could have on certain farmers needs monitoring.
     Finally, board member Lynn Schenk asked staff to be explicit that future plans will include an extension from Burbank to Anaheim in order to include Orange County.
     Representatives from San Francisco showed up to ask the authority to extend the phase 1 plans past San Jose all the way to the city by the bay.
     Construction began on the project last year in Fresno, with workers building a line between Merced and Bakersfield.
     Bakersfield City Planner Jacquelyn Kitchen also spoke during the proceedings, saying the plan to terminate the line at a station just outside of Bakersfield is insufficient.
     It’s more sensible for the project to connect to the heart of Bakersfield to fully benefit the residents of that city, Kitchen said.
     Staff will incorporate certain elements of public comment into the final draft, which is slated to be voted on by the board April 28 in Sacramento.

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