Rail chief defends plan during visit to Valley

Board exec tells Valley that project should start here.

The Fresno BeeJanuary 27, 2012 

Despite a growing chorus of critics, the incoming head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board remains confident that "the fundamentals of high-speed rail in California are strong" and that the central San Joaquin Valley is the place to start construction later this year.

Dan Richard, appointed to the authority board last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown, told a Fresno Chamber of Commerce audience Friday night that the Valley is a crucial backbone to connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco rail service. He added that he opposes shifting $3 billion in federal money from the Valley to start construction in other parts of the state.

Earlier Friday, Richard -- who lives in the Bay Area community of Piedmont -- spent time visiting with farmers in Kings County, a hotbed of opposition in the Valley.

"I felt it was important to really understand what the issues are as we come through the Valley," Richard said. "I know we have impacts, and today I had a chance to see some of those on the ground.

"I'd like to try to go back and see what we can do to minimize the effects to the greatest extent possible."

Richard acknowledged concerns raised by critics in government and the public over the rising cost -- estimates grew from $45 billion in 2009 to more than $98 billion in November -- and about ridership.

"The specific questions about our business plan need to be addressed, and we will," he said, adding that a revised plan may be available in the next six weeks. "But we believe strongly that the fundamentals of high-speed rail in California are strong."

Richard said about one-third of the $98 billion estimate to build the San Francisco-Los Angeles stage of the system represents the effects of inflation during construction. Billions have been included for potential cost overruns.

And he said it's important not to waste the opportunity to get federal funds, which require that contracts be awarded and construction begin by the end of September.

"There are a number of people who would be just as happy to give that money back, and there are people who would say, 'Let's take it out of the Valley and put it in other places,' but I oppose that," said Richard, who acknowledged that he was originally skeptical about building first in the Valley.

"This is the place to start building."

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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