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Lawmakers Scrutinize $68B High-Speed Rail Plan

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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SACRAMENTO (AP) — The chairman of California’s high-speed rail project defended the $68.4 billion plan before lawmakers on Wednesday, a day after the state Legislative Analyst’s Office urged the state Legislature to reject it because it relies on highly speculative financing.

At an Assembly hearing on the project, Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, urged lawmakers not to forego $3.3 billion in federal matching money available for the project. President Barack Obama’s administration has offered the money for construction of the first segment in the Central Valley, which was slated to begin this year.

Lawmakers are considering Gov. Jerry Brown’s request to sell about $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds to begin construction.

The latest business plan, released earlier this month, trimmed last year’s cost estimate of $98 billion but leaves it well above the $45 billion estimate given to voters in 2008 when they approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds.

Brian Weatherford, an LAO analyst who wrote the report criticizing the latest funding proposal, said lawmakers are being asked to approve funding “while some of the details still aren’t worked out, which increases the risk.”

Richard countered that the LAO only looked at the continuing risks of building a 520-mile system linking Northern and Southern California, and failed to consider the state’s infrastructure needs in the coming years.

“There is a risk that what we have to do to maintain mobility will cost more. I only ask that we balance those risks,” he said.

The latest proposal for a 520-mile system linking San Francisco-to-Burbank estimates completion in 2028 and relies extensively on commuter rail lines to cut costs.

Weatherford said he is concerned that $42 billion of the project’s funding, or more than 60 percent, would come from still-unidentified federal sources. Republicans who control Congress also are staunchly opposed to high-speed rail funding.

Richard, who served for 12 years on the board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, said most transportation projects are not fully funded decades in advance. The proposal calls for the line to be built in segments, with funding identified for each ahead of time, he said.

“It is just part and parcel of the transportation world that people don’t know all these things ahead of time,” he said. “We believe the entire program has value and will continue to have value, and we will not build any new legs unless we have the dollars.”

More than a dozen people testified for and against the rail proposal at the Assembly hearing. Several Central Valley residents questioned whether the latest plan complies with the ballot measure voters approved in 2008 which authorized the state to sell nearly $10 billion in construction bonds.

At that time, the project was estimated to cost $45 billion, and high-speed rail would link San Francisco to Los Angeles. The latest plan scales back building new high-speed tracks in favor of a so-called “blended” approach that uses existing commuter rail lines.

John Vigna, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said Perez remains committed to the project, and believes California should capitalize on historically low construction and labor costs now.

“There’s obviously a lot of head-banging issues still to be worked out, but I think the commitment on the part of the Democratic caucus is still 100 percent there,” he said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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