Even as they raised the estimated cost of high-speed rail in California to almost $100 billion over 20 years, the project's organizers on Tuesday were staging a comeback bid.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority, which came under heavy criticism in the Legislature and appeared for months to be on the brink of collapse, cast the new cost estimate as a measure of its credibility.
The resulting cost estimate is so high, officials hope, that critics no longer will accuse the authority of issuing rosy estimates. The authority also changed part of its construction plan to placate opponents in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.
While Republicans criticized the rising cost -- Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton called the project a "boondoggle that needs to be derailed" -- Gov. Jerry Brown and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature issued praise, putting the project on firmer ground ahead of Legislative hearings next year.
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"This plan represents a new day, a new time and a new beginning," Tom Umberg, chairman of the rail authority board, told reporters at the California State Railroad Museum.
If approved, the authority will start construction next fall in the Central Valley, from Bakersfield to near Chowchilla, expanding the line to San Francisco and the Los Angeles area by 2033. The authority estimated construction could cost $98.5 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than twice the previous estimate of $43 billion.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who supports the high-speed rail project, said in a statement Tuesday: "One of the strengths of this business plan is the clear path it lays between beginning construction in the Central Valley next year and achieving a full high-speed rail system that spans the state, expanding our transportation options in a way that's safe, fast, clean and affordable."
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, countered in a statement of his own that the business plan "should convince even the most loyal high-speed rail advocate to re-examine the project," which he described as "financially irresponsible and reckless."
Rail officials pressed their plan at the state rail museum from a podium at the head of a Northwestern Pacific locomotive, steeping their appeal in the tradition of infrastructure spending.
The authority compared the project to building California's freeways, particularly the decades it took to build Interstate 5. Even under the most conservative assumptions, officials said, the train would operate at a profit.
Expanding airport and highway systems to accommodate the state's growing population, they said, would cost more.
Officials attributed much of the cost increase to changes in design, including more viaducts, tunnels and bridges.
"It's pretty hard to say that we're hiding the ball when we're out there talking about $98 billion," said Dan Richard, one of two advisers Brown appointed this summer to the rail authority board. "So now, let's focus down on the real policy questions, and let's have the policy discussion and debate."
Much of that debate is likely to remain around the authority's plan to start construction in the Central Valley, where it contends construction is least expensive and where the federal government earmarked aid.
The area is far from California's largest cities, and Assembly Member Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, told rail officials hours after the business plan's release, "I'm still not clear as to why we're starting in the Central Valley."
In the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the authority changed course. Its proposal to use existing rail lines in those areas could blunt opposition to construction there.
The authority also believes it can soften regional criticism of the project by coordinating with local transportation agencies and pressing for public funding for those agencies' projects, Richard said.
The mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco spoke favorably about the project in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, and Michael Scanlon, executive director of Caltrain, the commuter rail line on the San Francisco Peninsula, urged its approval.
More than three years after California voters approved $9 billion in rail bonds in 2008, the authority plans to request about $2.7 billion in bond proceeds as part of the 2012-13 budget process.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a prepared statement that while the revised business plan "may bring some sticker shock," it is a "tough and honest assessment of the challenges ahead if we are to build a functioning high-speed rail system in California."
Meanwhile, Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, said he plans to introduce legislation that would ask California voters to reconsider the $9 billion bond measure.
Agency officials said the current plan is within the confines of the voter-approved initiative authorizing funding for the project.