California rail agency requests billions to start construction

California’s bullet train agency on Thursday formally requested a multibillion-dollar appropriation to start construction next year, after dozens of people from across the state attacked the $98-billion project’s cost, rationale and effects on communities.

The California High Speed Rail Authority board adopted a funding plan, which seeks to tap $3.3 billion in federal grants and $2.7 billion in state bonds to begin building an initial 140-mile segment of track through the Central Valley. That non-operational segment would run mostly through farmland from Chowchilla to Bakersfield.

The request now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and then the Legislature, where it will face tough scrutiny by lawmakers concerned about where they will find more than $90 billion to finish the system — described as the largest infrastructure project in the nation.

In a new business plan announced Tuesday, the authority said it hopes to get billions in private investments, additional federal funding and proceeds from a new U.S. bond program that will require congressional approval. Critics note that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has vowed to stop all federal funding for the project.


The authority board sat silently Tuesday in a Sacramento hearing room as one speaker after another said the train’s construction would ruin their homes, walnut groves, dairy farms, businesses and potentially their families’ futures.

Glen Parsons of Hanford said his family stood to lose five homes and a farm. Other mostly negative comments continued for close to two hours and came from Democrats, Republicans, tea party activists, county officials, school board members and others.

Voters approved the project in 2008, but critics say the ranks of opponents are growing, particularly with cost estimates for the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco leg of the system now three times original estimates.

The authority’s chairman, Tom Umberg, said he would carefully consider the public’s concerns but gave speakers just 90 seconds and then cut the limit to 60 seconds, irking some audience members who came long distances. Many demanded that the project be halted immediately, arguing that the state could not afford the rail system when it is laying off teachers and setting criminals free from prison to save money.

Given the growing cost, state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) has said he would introduce legislation to give voters a chance to withdraw previously approved funding. Other critics asserted the project was no longer the $33-billion project presented to voters three years ago. “This is the biggest bait and switch in California history,” Charles Voltz, a member of the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, told board members.

Roelof van Ark, the chief executive, said he understood the concerns about cuts to the education budget, noting that his daughter is a teacher. “We believe this project is going to create an economic boom in California,” he said. A few officials from Palmdale and the Central Valley praised the project.

A bullet train business plan released Tuesday notes that the system cost of $98 billion could jump an additional $19 billion depending on the route and construction features.