Federal money for California's high-speed rail program could be jeopardized if the start of construction is significantly delayed in the San Joaquin Valley.
And there are signs that might happen.
Court records suggest the California High-Speed Rail Authority's schedule continues to slip for building the project's first stages in Madera and Fresno counties.
In its legal battle arguing that an injunction to block construction is unnecessary, the authority said major work is unlikely to start before next fall. Originally, construction was expected to start last month.
At the same time, a federal deadline linked to more than $3 billion in stimulus funds may be looming even sooner than previously advertised.
A construction consulting manager said in court records that work on the Madera-Bakersfield segments has to be more or less completed by March 31, 2017, to make sure bills are paid before the federal grant expires in September 2017.
With the construction window being squeezed from both sides, some wonder whether the federal money could be lost.
Major construction on the rail line is unlikely to begin until the fall of 2013, said Brent Felker, the high-speed rail program director for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting company managing the statewide project for the rail authority, in a legal declaration filed in Sacramento Superior Court.
"Failure to complete construction in the timing required ... or if it appears that the construction timing cannot be met because of delays, risks the entire funding," Felker said.
Details of the updated schedule are included in the authority's arguments against a motion by Madera County, the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus and other high-speed rail opponents for a preliminary injunction. A hearing on the injunction is set for Nov. 16 in Sacramento.
A preliminary injunction, if granted by the judge, would prevent the rail authority from moving forward with the work until a trial on the lawsuits is completed. That would slow the project even more.
Two years ago, when Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo delivered a symbolic check to the rail authority at a ceremony in Fresno, officials touted a schedule that called for construction to begin in September 2012.
Still, rail authority CEO Jeffrey Morales said he believes the schedule is "do-able."
"We can't guarantee or crystal-ball every contingency," he said. "But we are confident we will meet the deadline."
Morales said that in a project of this size, complexity and scope, some changes are inevitable. Target dates within the schedule may evolve, he said last week, but the only concrete deadline is the expiration of the federal grant in September 2017.
"It's not lagging, it's just going through the process," Morales said. "Some things are changing, but we are continuing to make progress and move forward, and always with an eye on the hard deadline."
A moving target
Morales said that what Felker characterized as a March 2017 time frame for completion is a "target" date that represents when the authority needs to start submitting invoices to the federal government to make sure the grant funds are paid before they expire on Sept. 30, the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
"It's understandable that people want to know, 'What's your timing and how much is it going to cost?' " Morales said. "We have to answer those, and what we're providing is the best available information we have at the time, but things change."
Earlier this year, the rail authority anticipated accepting bids from contracting teams in August or September for the first construction section from Madera to the south end of Fresno. Now the bid deadline for would-be contractors is Nov. 2.