Bullet train may take longer to build but cost less than originally estimated, official says

California's bullet train could take longer to build than previously estimated and its ultimate cost is difficult to predict, the head of the high-speed rail authority told state legislators Wednesday.

"It may take us a little longer than we said to do this," rail authority Chairman Dan Richard said in testimony to an Assembly transportation committee. He did not elaborate.

But Richard also said that a forthcoming update of its business plan for the high-speed link between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area will show a reduction in the estimated cost of $68 billion, despite delays that have slowed construction.

The project is more than two years behind the schedule the authority announced in 2012, when it expected to start building 29 miles of rail structures. The work began in July and remains at a slow pace.

The oversight hearing was called by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), who described the bullet train as "one of the most complex projects not only in the state but in the nation's history."

Bloom said construction of the rail system will be difficult and full of risks. In a brief interview after the 90-minute hearing, he said he believed the project "is being managed well."

The hearing was limited to testimony from three officials, two of whom work for the authority and a third who is chairman of a peer review panel.

In a public comment period after the testimony, a series of speakers sharply criticized the project, but their remarks were limited to one minute apiece.

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando), who was among those in the public comment line, said she had asked rail authority officials to work with her on some of the effects of the project on her working-class community but did not receive any response.

Other objections were raised by the Train Riders Assn. of California, farmers and other rural residents. Two labor union officials praised the project.

Richard and state rail authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales spent much of their testimony during the hearing attacking an October 2015 Times story that concluded that the state was highly unlikely to complete an initial operating segment from Burbank to Merced by its 2022 deadline or to bring the project in on budget.

The Times found that the years remaining before the deadline were not enough to construct 300 miles of track, bore 36 miles of mountain tunnels, build six train stations, erect high-voltage electrical systems and construct a heavy maintenance facility. The story was based on comments by tunnel engineers, construction experts and geologists.

The story also reported that the agency's primary consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, had submitted a cost estimate in October 2013 that projected a 31% increase in the cost of the initial construction segment and a 5% increase in the cost of the full 500-mile system. The estimate, which was the culmination of a two-year effort by a team of engineers, was not used when the state issued its 2014 business plan several months later.

Morales told lawmakers the Parsons Brinckerhoff estimate was just a draft, subject to revision and among other analyses used for the official cost estimate that was made public. A large number of the rail agency's reports and documents are marked "draft" in large letters, including the written testimony that Richard and Morales read from a witness table at Wednesday's hearing.

"They are hiding behind the draft stamp," Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said after the hearing.

Morales testified that part of the $9-billion increase reported by The Times was based on construction of more miles of track and longer viaducts, an explanation he did not provide in an interview before the story was published.

The full documentation behind the Parsons Brinckerhoff cost estimate has yet to be disclosed. The rail authority had refused to provide the estimate, which was contained in a detailed PowerPoint presentation, under the Public Records Act. The Times subsequently obtained the document from an individual close to the project.

Richard also told the committee that The Times had refused to interview the rail agency's own tunneling experts.

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In fact, The Times made a request to interview the authority's tunnel engineers. Lisa Marie Alley, who was then the press secretary, offered an interview with Lombardi, an Italian subcontractor, and also asked that The Times speak with an outside expert, Anthony Cording.

In a July 23, 2015, email, The Times wrote that it would be "happy to talk to the Lombardi people and Cording."

The authority subsequently withdrew the offer for the Lombardi interview. The Times independently contacted Cording, who declined to comment publicly.

The Times did speak to three of the world's foremost tunneling experts, none of whom are affiliated with the project. They were highly skeptical the tunnels could be bored by the 2022 deadline.

Patterson asked Richard whether, as The Times reported Sunday, the rail authority was rethinking its plan to build the first segment between Burbank and Merced. The Times said the authority was considering a plan to build instead from the Bay Area south — a change that would avoid the difficult tunneling of the southern route until much of the system had been completed.

Richard did not elaborate on what the authority is considering. He said, "Nobody is going to be left behind no matter what we do."

Patterson said testimony by Richard and Morales was ambiguous, adding, "The interest here was to have a show hearing."

Louis Thompson, chairman of a peer review panel that was mandated under state law, also testified Wednesday, suggesting the project should have significantly closer oversight by a well-funded and long-term branch of the state government.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 28, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Bullet train may miss deadline" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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