For California's high-speed rail project, it's been an inauspicious autumn.
Disparaged for its lack of public outreach, the California High-Speed Rail Authority hired a new deputy director for communications and public policy, Lance Simmens, who introduced himself to Kings County residents -- and YouTube viewers everywhere -- by falling asleep at a public meeting.
The authority board delayed releasing its much-awaited business plan and canceled luncheons with the Sacramento Press Club.
When it tried to find a replacement for powerhouse public relations company Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide -- which itself came under fire and is quitting its $9 million contract -- the authority fumbled that, too, canceling the bid process and starting over.
But two months after Gov. Jerry Brown came out in support of the project and suggested his administration could help rail officials "get their act together," the authority contends it has.
It will release a business plan Tuesday, including updated ridership and cost estimates.
"I think that this plan is going to go a long way in reassuring people that this is really a project that is in the best interest of every Californian," said Simmens, who has apologized profusely for his Kings County snooze. "This is such a huge and monumental step forward to address the long-term needs ... particularly the infrastructure needs of this state."
The plan's release comes at perhaps the most critical moment for California's high-speed rail prospects since voters approved $9 billion in rail bonds in 2008, preceding a decision by the Legislature next year about whether to let the project proceed.
"This is a watershed moment for high-speed rail," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. "I think people are reasonably expecting that we get some good answers to hard questions, most obviously, 'What's it going to cost and how are we going to pay for it?' "
In a preview of its revised document, the authority said in a letter to lawmakers this month that private-sector investment is unlikely until after at least part of the project is operational. The position is more conservative than the authority maintained last year, which could benefit its reception by lawmakers immersed in California's still-teetering budget.
But in the most controversial aspect of the rail authority's plan -- starting construction in the Central Valley, away from California's population centers -- the authority has given no indication it will bend. Nor has the federal government, which conditioned billions of dollars for the project to construction starting in the Central Valley.
The authority plans to start construction of a first segment, from Bakersfield to near Chowchilla, next fall.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the Long Beach Democrat who chairs the Senate select committee on high-speed rail, said the authority has provided no data to support its claim that high-speed rail in the Valley could succeed, and he is skeptical it will in its revised plan.
Lowenthal said he "may be wrong" but that, "I think members of both parties' patience have been tried and tested. ... They're not just going to rubber stamp this anymore."
The fate of the project will be decided by the Legislature in budget hearings next year. Brown could include the bond issuance in his January budget proposal or, to delay a showdown at the Capitol, include it in his May budget revision.
The endorsement by the Democratic governor, who said his administration was "working directly with the authority to get their act together," could improve the project's prospects in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, and his two appointments to the rail board were viewed positively by some lawmakers.
One of Brown's appointees, Michael Rossi, is a former bank executive and Brown's top jobs adviser. The other, Dan Richard, is a former member of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District board.
"I would say we both came in agnostics at best on this," said Richard, Brown's deputy legal affairs secretary and deputy assistant for science and technology when Brown was governor before. "I'm a guy who's spent a lot of time in transit issues, and I started out, my first question was, 'Well can this thing even work?' "
They appear to believe it can.
Simmens said Richard and Rossi "now are true believers" in the project.
"We've got two new board members, both appointees of the governor, who have immersed themselves relentlessly in the construction of this business plan," Simmens said. "If that is getting our act together, I think the answer is most certainly yes."
Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said Brown's appointees afford him a degree of "skin in the game."
To the extent that it does, Brown may find it's a difficult spot: While Lowenthal is urging Brown to lobby the White House for flexibility to start construction somewhere other than the Valley, Huff and other Republican lawmakers are advocating alternative plans focused on improving regional train service in and around California's metropolitan areas.
Improved rail "is essential," Huff said. "How we get there is the rub."
Yet to come is any public-relations push. The authority said its decision to pull back on that contract was lawful and necessary to better define an agreement, but at least one public-relations firm, Katz & Associates, is challenging the process.
"If there was ever an agency that needed to improve their public relations," said Robert Ottilie, a lawyer for the company, "it would seem to be the High-Speed Rail Authority."