In the first formal step to figure out who's going to build and run California's high-speed rail system, officials Wednesday invited companies to speak up if they're interested -- and send in ideas.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority's "request for expressions of interest" is 44 pages long, and it's going out to businesses around the world. Its release marks the start of a yearlong process to select firms to design and build the initial segment between Fresno and Bakersfield.
"We're beginning the dialogue to describe to the private sector how to get involved," said Jeffrey Barker, the authority's deputy executive director.
Companies have five weeks to respond.
California's high-speed rail plan calls for a 520-mile route connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, through the San Joaquin Valley, by 2020 with trains traveling at up to 220 mph. Later sections would extend to Sacramento and San Diego.
Late last year, the authority identified a 120-mile stretch from the north end of Fresno to the northwestern fringe of Bakersfield as the first piece to be built at a price of about $5.5 billion. The money is a combination of federal stimulus funds and money from Proposition 1A, a bond measure approved by voters in 2008.
The authority hopes to award contracts for the Valley section by fall 2012.
The request for interest comes as the authority prepares to publish draft reports detailing the potential effects of the train system on Valley agriculture, commerce, transportation and the environment.
Over the next five weeks, Barker said, he expects companies with high-speed-rail experience in other countries to sound off on what California's system would look like, "from helping to finance the system to providing the trains and other core systems, to operating and maintaining the system."
Those ideas will help steer California's planning, he added. "That's when private participation will start to take shape."
Last year, the authority was sharply criticized by an independent panel of transportation, finance and engineering experts for, among other things, lacking a clear plan on how the state and private industry would work to own and operate the system.
Well-defined business model and financial plans are among the requirements the authority must meet before it can start using state bond funds.
"We have several models in mind, but often the industry has many good ideas that we want to incorporate" into the bidding process, said Ken Jong, a deputy program director with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a consulting firm working for the authority.