The state rail authority, tentatively bowing to demands of the northern San Joaquin Valley, now intends to link Merced to the initial operating segment of the California bullet train, a decision that could add more than $1 billion to that phase of the cash-strapped project.
The decision, unveiled at a board meeting Thursday, was part of 22 pages of revisions to the agency's draft 2016 business plan. The changes follow extensive criticism and comment about the draft plan, released in February, by legislators, regional officials and independent experts.
The board put off approval of the business plan until next week.
The revisions attempt to address a host of concerns, including a lack of specificity about how the state would bridge a $43.5-billion gap in funding the $64-billion project and about the ultimate plan to connect the rail to end points in San Diego and Sacramento.
The rail authority staff did not find any major new sources of funding but examined more closely how it might tap into private investments and additional federal funding.
The business plan lays out a strategy for building an initial operating segment by 2025 that would run from San Jose to the Central Valley for $20.5 billion. That segment potentially could be funded from existing federal grants, greenhouse gas fees and bonds approved by voters in 2008.
Potential political, legal and economic risks could undermine each of those pools of money, though the rail authority's business plan revisions take a positive view.
"There is now a clear path forward for funding the initial operating line from the Silicon Valley to the Central Valley with public funds that have been committed by the Legislature and the federal government," the plan says.
It is a significant departure from an earlier strategy to build an initial line from Burbank to the Central Valley by 2022 for $31 billion. Although Southern California will not be part of the initial system, the state rail authority agreed to invest $2 billion in passenger rail improvements, but the source of that funding is also uncertain.
After it released its initial plan and proposed to build first in northern California, cities, counties and the regional authority in the northern San Joaquin Valley strongly objected to being left out of the initial operating segment. The train route would go from San Jose to Gilroy and then east to Chowchilla, passing about 20 miles south of Merced on its way to Fresno.
Now, the rail authority staff proposes building a single track to Merced that would eventually be part of a later route to Sacramento. The rail authority did not disclose a cost for those new miles of track or for building a station in Merced, explaining that it would strive "to identify cost savings" to pay for the additional work.
A technical backup document that provides detailed cost estimates for the project indicates that 20 miles of track would cost $1 billion and a large crossover structure, known in railroading as WYE, would cost an additional $1.2 billion. Some portion of that structure would be required with or without the Merced stub.
The additional track would not add to the final cost of the San Francisco to Anaheim system, rail authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said.
Officials and private individuals from across California attended the meeting in San Jose to offer comments.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chelsea said the new plan would get his support.
Bakersfield planning director Jacqui Kitchen expressed concern that the initial operating segment would not reach her city, though the rail authority is trying to find $2.9 billion to extend the line from a farm field north of Shafter to the city.
Citizen groups from San Jose said the existing plan for the rail would further decades of damage to their neighborhoods from transportation projects.
Several UC Merced students praised the project, particularly the plan to include Merced.
A Bay Area watchdog group said the state is making a grave error in planning for the initial segment, arguing that the authority would do better to build a line from Fresno to San Jose by going north through the Altamont Pass. The existing plan runs a high risk of "disastrously low ridership," the group said.
Under the 2008 bond act, the rail authority must give the business plan to the Legislature by May 1.