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High-speed rail authority says environmental reviews won't be completed until 2020

The state’s bullet train authority acknowledged Tuesday evening that it would fail to meet its self-imposed deadline to complete by 2018 the project’s environmental reviews, which determine the exact route that the electrified rail line would take between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The authority said it would not complete environmental documents outlining where each foot of the future track will lie as it traverses some of the state’s largest cities and hundreds of miles of lush farmland until 2020, long past the original deadline that envisioned 119 miles of track built this year and a starter system operating by 2022.

The announcement adds fodder for outside analysts and critics, who have long said there’s been a failure to grasp the profound difficulty of building 500 miles of new track across one of the most complex economies in the world and a lack of consistent leadership to execute the monumental task.

The rail authority, a board appointed by political leaders in the state, said in 2016 the environmental clearances would be completed this year. And then earlier this year, the authority said they would be completed in 2018.

The project has been hurt by litigation, which is likely to increase markedly when the environmental impact statements and reports are completed. Under state and federal law, opponents cannot sue until the documents are certified by the authority. The only two partial sections that have been approved triggered lawsuits by farmers, cities, a county and opposition groups.

The delays are coming at a difficult time. The authority is trying to write its 2018 business plan, a biennial report mandated by state law. It has to make a credible case that the project has enough sources of funding to complete future construction and can be executed as a successful self-supporting enterprise. The 2016 business plan outlined a plan to build a starter system from San Jose to an almond field south of Wasco for $21 billion. But now the availability of that $21 billion is in doubt and the construction costs could vastly exceed expectations, according to some of the nation’s top construction experts.

Rail authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said in a statement, “Due to the magnitude of this program, we have always recognized that our environmental schedules would need to be refined and adjusted on an ongoing basis.”

The delay is part of a much broader slowdown that has affected the project.

The Federal Railroad Administration issued a risk analysis in December that warned the project was seven years behind schedule and could be billions of dollars over budget.

The authority itself adjusted its cost estimates in recent months to reflect a $1.7-billion cost increase on the Central Valley construction.

On Tuesday, Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) asked legislative leaders to approve an emergency audit.

“Whether you think it’s a good or bad idea — this project is ripping up Central California and destroying productive farmland,” Patterson, a former mayor of Fresno, said. “We owe it to the people to demonstrate that the [High-Speed Rail Authority] isn’t going to skip town and leave us with a partially built track that ends in a field outside Shafter.”

Such an audit would require the chairs of the state Senate and Assembly audit committees to give their approval. State Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside), who has criticized the project in the past, did not comment. Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) said in a statement that he is looking into the request. “The interim request, although allowed for through the rules of the committee, is rare,” he said.

The rail authority has the funds to probably complete 119 miles of track in the Central Valley from Merced to Wasco, but it could stall after that point unless the Legislature finds a new source of money.

The authority is also wrestling with an exodus of top executives. Chief Executive Jeff Morales left his position in June. Dennis Trujillo, the chief deputy, left late last year. The authority risk chief just left, among others. The departures have left key jobs filled by acting officials. And the problems are surfacing just 13 months before Gov. Jerry Brown, the project’s biggest supporter, will leave office.

The rail authority did not address how the two-year delay on environmental clearances would affect future construction and ultimate operation of a system intended to reach speeds of 220 mph.

The difficulty of the route is evident in almost every mile of the system. Residents of northern San Fernando Valley have objected to a passage across the Big Tujunga Wash. Environmental groups worry about its effect on an open space preserve at the juncture of the Diablo Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains, just south of San Jose. Almond and citrus growers in the Central Valley say the rail will cut their fields diagonally, reducing productivity. And engineers say the complexity of crossing three of the state’s mountain ranges is a challenge that is not fully understood.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @rvartabedian

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