(CN) - California changed gears in its high-speed rail plans and will build the first 250 miles of the bullet train track to the Bay Area instead of Southern California.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority's draft 2016 plan, released Thursday evening, revealed that the first passenger-carrying trains will run from Bakersfield to San Jose when operations begin in the mid-2020s. The original plan called for the first segment to be built from Merced down to the Burbank area in LA County.
The change in direction will help the authority keep down costs and expedite construction of the system, which is already at least two years behind schedule. The draft plan revised downward the cost of the entire line from $68 billion to $64.1 billion - well below the projection of $98 billion from several years ago, but far above the initial estimate of around $40 billion.
Jeff Morales, CEO of the authority, said in a statement that the plan presents "a clear path forward" for the rail system.
"By constructing the line between the Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, while also making significant investments in Southern California's passenger rail systems, high-speed rail service will become a reality in the state in the next 10 years at a lower cost than previously estimated," Morales said.
The 2014 business plan pegged the cost to design and build an operational line between Merced and the San Fernando Valley at $31 billion. The new plan to build the rail to northern California is anticipated to cost around $20 billion.
And the change will delay expensive tunneling and difficult construction through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains, which has garnered political opposition.
The authority believes having the first operating line run from San Francisco to Bakersfield would also "significantly enhance ridership and revenues and therefore attract higher value private-sector concession bids," according to the draft plan.
Construction on the high-speed rail started in Fresno last summer, more than two years behind schedule. Five segments of the system stretching from Fresno to Bakersfield are either under construction or soon will be. They are being funded by a $9.95 billion state bond issue passed by voters in 2008, as well as $3.4 billion in federal funds.
Construction in the Fresno area is expected to be completed by 2018 or 2019.
To finance the newly defined initial leg of the rail up to Silicon Valley, the authority plans to use a mix of the bond money, federal funding and an appropriation of up to $500 million annually from California's cap-and-trade system, which companies pay into in order to buy air pollution credits as part of the state's greenhouse gas-reduction program.
The authority estimates that it will complete construction of the high-speed rail line between the Silicon Valley and the Central Valley by 2024, with operations beginning in 2025.
Additional segments will be constructed as funding becomes available. The authority said it will continue to work on completing environmental analyses for every mile of the program and securing environmental approvals. It expects to finalize the necessary clearances statewide by the end of 2017.
The authority's plan proposes improving certain areas throughout the state in preparation for the building of the high-speed rail system. One area in particular that is important is the Burbank to Anaheim corridor, which the authority said is critical to supporting the economy of Southern California.
According to the plan, the authority will join with local partners to improve this corridor, including upgrading tracks, building new underpasses, and making improvements at Los Angeles Union Station.
California Department of Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly said that the 2016 draft plan "articulates how the construction will be phased while reiterating its commitment to build a project that connects the entire state - Northern, Central and Southern California."
"Key to this strategy is important investment to improve highly congested travel corridors between Burbank and Anaheim now. My agency is working urgently with the authority and local transportation partner agencies in Southern California to get these high-priority projects built and service improvements in place as soon as possible," Kelly said.
The 2016 draft plan will go through a 60-day period of public review and comment before it is formally approved by the rail authority's board and sent to the Legislature.
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