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Patterson calls high-speed rail cost increases, delays 'a grave concern'

Construction crews work on building a new high-speed rail bridge over the San Joaquin River at the north end of Fresno on Oct. 17, 2017.
Construction crews work on building a new high-speed rail bridge over the San Joaquin River at the north end of Fresno on Oct. 17, 2017. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

A new business plan unveiled Friday for California's troubled high-speed rail project more resembles a "going out of business" plan, said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno.

Patterson, a longtime critic of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's efforts to develop a statewide bullet-train system, said the new plan effectively shows just how deep the problems run in the agency.

He predicted that the plan's highlights – a new cost estimate of more than $77 billion, some $13 billion higher than projected just two years ago, and a schedule that now calls for a high-speed rail connection between Bakersfield and San Jose no earlier than 2029 – will be a key campaign issue in this year's elections..

That revised estimate pushes up the operating date for that section by four years. "This has now risen to a level of grave concern for anyone running for the Legislature or running for governor," Patterson told The Bee on Friday.

Leaders with the state rail agency "don't have billions of dollars necessary to complete the initial system between the Valley and San Jose," he added. "The big hole is the tunnel through Pacheco Pass … so they have no way to connect the ends."

Patterson was also critical of a shift outlined in the plan from having an operational high-speed rail system by 2025. "Now they're identifying the system as 'high-speed-rail ready,' and that's a significant departure from we were told before," he said. "This document essentially suggests that central California has been sold a bill of goods. … It's heartbreaking for people who have been planning on this and trying to integrate it into what they want to do."

A state audit of the rail program, something for which Patterson successfully pushed earlier this year, is likely to include a close examination of the new business plan, he said. "We now have, for the first time, a really serious disclosure of the kinds of problems that many of us have been concerned about," Patterson said. "This is going to inform the audit … and I think it calls into real question (the authority's) ability to contain and control costs."

Construction of the high-speed rail line has been underway for several years in the Valley, where cost estimates have risen from an original projection of about $6 billion a few years ago to more than $10 billion earlier this year for 119 miles from Madera to north of Bakersfield. The new business plan indicates that similar inflationary pressures will affect other portions of what is proposed as a 520-mile line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of Fresno and the Valley.

Patterson said his concern is what will become of the overpasses, bridges and other structures now under construction in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. "The next big discussion is, what do we do now?" he said. "The sooner we get to a Plan B, the sooner we get to figure out what do we do with the billions of dollars that have already been spent."

"We could be ceding it to Amtrak, so that we would have a multibillion-dollar upgrade" to the state's Amtrak San Joaquin line of conventional passenger trains that currently run between Bakersfield, Sacramento and Oakland, sharing tracks with the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad.

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