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Stimulus money will spur construction on California high-speed rail project, officials say

The $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funds awarded this week to the California high-speed rail project ensures that construction can proceed on a 520-mile route between Anaheim and San Francisco within three years, rail officials said Thursday.

Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the infusion of federal dollars would pay for completion of the project’s engineering and environmental reviews and provide a significant amount of seed money to start building the system by September 2012, as required by the federal grant.

“We have been aggressively pushing the environmental and engineering work on this project,” Morshed said. “We didn’t have assurances we would have money for construction. Now we do.”

The authority wants to build an initial line from Anaheim to San Francisco via the Central Valley by 2020 at an estimated cost of $42 billion. Officials say trains would speed passengers at up to 220 mph between Los Angeles and the Bay Area in no more than two hours and 40 minutes.

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A second phase calls for extensions to San Diego and Sacramento by 2026, which would add 300 more miles to the system.

California won the largest share of $8 billion in economic stimulus funds that the Obama administration distributed to 13 high-speed rail corridors across the country, including Tampa-to-Orlando in Florida and Chicago-to-St. Louis. The state had applied for $4.7 billion of the available amount.

On Thursday, President Obama and Vice President Biden formally announced from Tampa, Fla., the projects that would receive money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Morshed said the grant gives the California project the potential to generate $4.5 billion in additional funding by allowing the state to match the federal allocation. If the Legislature approves, the money will come from issuing bonds authorized by Proposition 1A. Passed in 2008, the ballot measure approved the sale of up to $10 billion in bonds to finance the high-speed rail project.

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Some of the stimulus money, Morshed said, would pay for engineering and environmental impact analysis of the project’s initial segments: San Francisco to San Jose, Merced to Fresno, Fresno to Bakersfield and Los Angeles to Anaheim. The balance, he said, would be spent on construction and the acquisition of rights of way.

“We should be able to meet the federal deadline, and we will,” Morshed said.

Some critics of the project doubt whether construction can begin by September 2012 because the rail authority faces substantial challenges. Public opposition has surfaced along the proposed route. An environmental lawsuit in Northern California recently knocked out a proposed alignment, and disputes with freight railroads have surfaced over use of their rights of way.

“There are lots of complications that need to be worked out before they can build,” said Richard Tolmach, director of the California Rail Foundation. “They haven’t determined the right of way between San Jose and Gilroy. Service doesn’t look feasible in the Central Valley. The L.A.-to-Anaheim route is pretty challenged.”

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who has presided over six hearings into the high-speed rail project as chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, is a supporter of the proposal.

However, he also said there are significant financial and planning hurdles.

Lowenthal contends that the project’s ridership and cost forecasts, which have changed repeatedly, might be unreliable and he questioned whether the authority could secure enough money to complete construction as scheduled.

“How are they going to go from $6 [billion] to $7 billion in funding to $42 billion?” Lowenthal asked.

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“How are they going to attract private investors? How do they expect to get $17 billion to $19 billion, as they have said, from the feds?”

dan.weikel@latimes.com


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