California high-speed rail leaders proposed putting Merced back on the initial route but put off a vote Thursday on a revised business plan to give state officials more time to assuage lawmakers and citizens upset by the recent decision to first send the train to Northern California rather than the Los Angeles area.
Officials proposed changes at a California High-Speed Rail Authority meeting in San Jose, where the board was expected to adopt the $64 billion business plan. The plan calls for the bullet train to head from the San Joaquin Valley to San Jose rather than south to the San Fernando Valley as originally planned.
In February, the board announced a revision to its business plan that would bypass Merced in the first part of the rail’s construction. But at Thursday’s meeting, the authority recommended a proposal that marked Merced as the starting point to the Valley section that would end in Wasco, instead of Shafter, in Kern County.
Part of the compromise to include Merced in the initial section is making the section a single rail instead of a double rail to save money, Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said. “They publicly apologized,” Gray said, calling the choice to leave out Merced “total mismanagement of their process.”
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The board still must officially vote on the plan, but Gray said he is confident it will be passed. If passed, the Merced high-speed rail station will open in 2025, putting it on the same timeline as the Fresno project.
Rail Authority Chairman Jeff Morales also told the board that the state will spend $4 billion in Southern California to prepare for high-speed rail there, seeking to reassure worried officials that a recent change in plans calling for the train to head first to San Jose rather than south to Anaheim might mean the train never makes it to the Los Angeles area.
Rail officials have pitched the first segment between the Valley and San Jose for $21 billion as the only way to ensure a usable segment gets built with the existing funding available.
“We need to look at this as a tool to help us rebuild many of these cities in the Central Valley,” said board Chairman Dan Richard.
It also avoids the expensive and tricky engineering work required to tunnel through the Tehachapi mountains and delays those residents’ complaints for a while.
The first stretch would begin operating in 2025, three years later and 50 miles shorter than the original planned route that would have first connected to the San Fernando Valley.
Updates every two years
The authority is required by law to update its business plan every two years and proposals and funding projects for the system have frequently changed, leading to criticism that the latest proposal is no more likely to become reality than any of the others.
“Just like the past two business plans, which were deemed great ideas at the time, I expect this body will approve this business plan and we’ll all be here again in four years with a different direction again,” said Kings County farmer Frank Oliveira, a member of Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability, one of several groups that have sued over the project.
The revised business plan has generated renewed criticism from lawmakers and prompted a new wave of oversight legislation, including a bill approved unanimously by the Assembly Transportation Committee this week. The bill would require the rail authority to offer projected financing costs for each segment of its business plan, something it has failed to do so far.
AB 2847 by Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, also would require rail officials to explain major changes to the business plan.
Still, Gov. Jerry Brown has remained a supporter of the project, which he maintains will help cut carbon emissions.
The project has about $3.2 billion in federal stimulus funds and nearly $10 billion in bond money approved by California voters in 2008. Lawmakers approved the first long-term funding source in the 2014-15 budget, giving the project about $500 million a year from fees charged to polluters.
The state legislative analyst’s office has noted that the rail line lacks a long-term funding source and that the cap-and-trade revenue may have already peaked.
The Associated Press and Merced Sun-Star contributed to this report