New plan for bullet train could cut cost by $30 billion

The agency overseeing California’s high-speed rail project reportedly plans to reduce the projected cost of the bullet train by $30 billion by connecting it with existing rail lines on the outskirts of Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Critics say the revised plan would not create the system that voters were promised when they approved $9 billion in public funding four years ago to get the project started. That plan was to allow passengers to ride without any transfers between the two metropolitan centers — at a total cost of $43 billion.

Since then the price tag had soared. Cutting the cost by $30 billion reduces the price to $68.4 billion, which is still $25 billion above the original. The new plan, according to the Associated Press, would spend $2 billion to improve existing rail lines into Los Angeles and in the Bay Area.

The new plan calls for an expanded 300-mile first segment, connecting Merced in the Central Valley to the San Fernando Valley within 10 years. The earlier draft plan included only a 130-mile portion of that, from Madera to Bakersfield.

State Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), a critic of the plan as it has evolved, told the AP that voters’ intent was that the project be “a true high-speed rail from one end to another and that it has to operate on its own, that the state can’t be underwriting it. This is far short.”

Support for the project has fallen as the cost has ballooned. A survey by the Field Poll found that 59% of likely voters would reject the project if given the chance to vote again. Another public opinion survey this year put that figure at 62%.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his appointee to oversee the authority, Dan Richard, have said the project’s cost had to be reduced for taxpayers and lawmakers to support it. The rail authority board is expected to consider the revised plan April 12.

James Earp, a union leader who helped orchestrate the 2008 ballot measure approving the project, said the new plan is “a game-changer for the California economy.” He lauded Brown for standing up to critics in the Legislature.

Brown is preparing to ask state lawmakers to appropriate $2.3 billion in rail bonds to begin building the first phase by year’s end, a timeline that is a condition for receiving about $3.5 billion in federal money.

Nadia Naik of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design said the organization is “really concerned about the lack of public participation in this plan. They’re releasing this Monday, and it’s going to a vote next week.”

LaMalfa and former Central Valley congressman George Radanovich are working to force a new statewide vote on the train. LaMalfa is also trying to halt the project with legislation introduced in the Senate.

“The amount of bond debt service for this rail would more than offset the cuts to the University of California, California State University or Medi-Cal,” LaMalfa said. “Look at all the things that are important to this state. People want a new vote.”

A separate attempt to put the issue back before voters was approved by the secretary of state earlier this year. That measure is the “No Train Please Act.”

Lance Simmens, communications director for the rail authority, would not comment on the revised report, other than to say it would be released Monday.