No final decision has been made, but high-speed rail planners are increasingly focused on Southern California as the most financially promising place to build the project's first operational segment.
In what could become a political win for the southern portion of the state, project officials say ridership and revenue projections clearly favor connecting the Los Angeles Basin's larger population base to initial construction proposed in the Central Valley. Tracks to the Bay Area would follow at least several years later under that scenario.
Recent discussions with transit agencies in the north and south could soften the impact of any decision on where the system would operate first.
Project officials say they are looking at connecting as soon as possible with L.A.'s Metrolink and the Bay Area's Caltrain. Observers say these improvements could be made simultaneously.
But as the rail authority puts final touches on a revised business plan that could determine the project's fate in the Legislature this spring, Chairman Dan Richard confirmed that planners are giving "more attention" to starting service between Merced and the San Fernando Valley rather than between Bakersfield and San Jose.
Richard denied having a preference for one option or the other; neutrality on this point has been the rail authority's policy. He also emphasized that a final board decision could be years away, and that both options will continue to be investigated in case of unforeseen obstacles.
Even so, he said this month that he and other board members cannot ignore recent estimates suggesting Southern California has more potential for delivering early operational profits.
"We will be guided to a great extent by the [ridership and revenue] numbers," he said.
Which way they go could have big implications for the project's financing. Officials expect an outside operator and other private investors will decide whether to invest $11 billion or more into the system based on how well the initial operating segment performs financially in the first few years after its projected 2022 opening date.
The full system, with trains running between Anaheim and San Francisco at up to 220 mph, would not operate until 2033 at the earliest, according to a November business plan draft. People involved say that plan is undergoing substantial revisions that could shorten the timetable and lower its $98 billion pricetag.
The November draft plan estimates that the southern option could cost a little more than the northern option, depending on which end of the price range is used. But it predicted that the southern option would attract about 20% more passengers.
The politics of such a decision are less straightforward. Jobs and investment will come sooner to the region that lands the initial operating segment.
Constituencies in the south point to the benefits of closing a passenger rail gap between Bakersfield and points south. Meanwhile, groups in the north contend that the project would do well to link as soon as possible to Silicon Valley jobs and the San Jose airport.
The Kern Council of Governments has long supported the southern option because it would bridge downtown Bakersfield's Amtrak station and Palmdale's Metrolink station. The current Amtrak rail system has a gap between Bakersfield and Los Angeles that is filled by buses.
Chairman Richard said L.A. officials seem more eager to get the first link than their counterparts in the Bay Area.
"I do hear from transportation leaders in Los Angeles that this is an important decision for them, and that there is a sense that they would like to see the [southern option] take precedent," the chairman said. "I haven't heard ... those explicit conversations with transportation people in the north."
This story is the result of a partnership among California news organizations following the states high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Bakersfield Californian, California Watch, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register,