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High-Speed Rail Plan Leaves the Station

SACRAMENTO (CN) — The California High-Speed Rail Authority on Thursday approved its final 2016 business plan despite criticism that it abandons half the state by giving Northern California priority over the south.

Thursday's meeting was a continuation of the April 21 hearing, which was adjourned to allow for more public comment because the authority's staff made new recommendations to authority members on April 21.

Chairman Dan Richard said the authority received more than 90 comments between the Thursday, April 21 meeting and Monday at 5 p.m., when the public comment period closed.

The authority has received more than 300 public comments since it introduced the business plan in February.

Most board members participated in Thursday's 40-minute hearing by telephone.

After significant back-and-forth in months of hearings, public comment and explanations of the business plan, authority CEO Jeff Morales joked that it won't be long before they are at the drawing board again.

"We will have a new business plan in two years, which means we will get to work on it next week," Morales told authority staff and board members.

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 Shafter, a small Central Valley town north of Bakersfield. Originally, the first phase planned the Merced-to-Los Angeles line.

Extending the line to Bakersfield and improving existing infrastructure in San Jose and San Francisco to handle high-speed trains would require $2.9 billion in additional funding, according to the authority.

Total costs of the project were reduced from an estimated $67.6 billion to $64.2 billion in the approved business plan.

Morales said his agency hopes to have the Phase 1 line up and running by 2025. The train would carry passengers to and from the Central Valley and Silicon Valley at up to 240 miles per hour.

Perhaps the most controversial change in the 2016 plan was to shift Phase 1 construction away from Southern California to Northern California.

In one comment submitted on the authority's website, Alexander Friedman suggested the authority should build the first phase in the most populous region of the state — Southern California.

"Building the HSR to the highest population, highest density area is a must. Otherwise, [there is] no sense of implementing the project," Friedman wrote. He also suggested the rail should close the missing gap in rail service between Los Angeles and Bakersfield to increase ridership.

Many other commenters echoed that sentiment, which Chairman Richard said have not fallen on deaf ears despite what many Southern Californians see as a setback.

Board member Daniel Curtin, representing Sacramento, said people have asked him why the authority "abandoned half the state."

"The premise is we're abandoning one half of the state, but it's much more complicated than that," Curtin said. "To me it's one big project and you have to go to where the resources are available. I try to reassure the people I work with there's no abandonment. If we get enough cooperation and find resources, there will be a lot of concurrent construction throughout the state."

Since it announced changes to the Phase 1 plan this year, the authority has recommitted itself to a 2012 memorandum of understanding with transportation and regional partners in Southern California, Richard said.

Richard reiterated statements he made to the Legislature in late March that the latest business plan shows that construction of the nation's first high-speed train is about to get under way.

"For the first time, we can tell people how something of great significance can actually get built. If we continue to receive funds, we can open America's first operating high-speed rail and connect two really important regions of the state," Richard said.

Since groundbreaking in January 2015, more than 119 miles of construction are under way in Phase 1.

The approved plan includes a recently added Merced Station, which will connect the Central Valley farming town to San Jose and Silicon Valley through a 1-hour trip.

Connecting Silicon Valley to Merced and other areas of the Central Valley — which Richard said have historically lacked investment — is vitally important to laying out "a course for California's future that's productive and exciting," Richard said.

He said the additional Central Valley station could alleviate the jobs-housing imbalance in the Bay Area which has led commuters to "put increased pressure on roads and existing passenger rail systems."

Attributing the pushback from communities disappointed to not be included in Phase 1 to the "pent up interest and desire" in the high-speed train, Richard said that people from Bakersfield to Burbank will get their piece of the pie.

"We can and will build high-speed rail in California and will unlock latent private sector investment and public support. This just shows how important high-speed rail is to these communities," Richard said.

The authority has until Monday, May 2 to deliver the business plan to the Legislature, which oversees the authority. The authority's next board meeting is set for May 10 in Bakersfield.

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