Federal money for California's high-speed rail program could be jeopardized if the start of construction is significantly delayed in the San Joaquin Valley.
And there are signs that might happen.
Court records suggest the California High-Speed Rail Authority's schedule continues to slip for building the project's first stages in Madera and Fresno counties.
In its legal battle arguing that an injunction to block construction is unnecessary, the authority said major work is unlikely to start before next fall. Originally, construction was expected to start last month.
At the same time, a federal deadline linked to more than $3 billion in stimulus funds may be looming even sooner than previously advertised.
A construction consulting manager said in court records that work on the Madera-Bakersfield segments has to be more or less completed by March 31, 2017, to make sure bills are paid before the federal grant expires in September 2017.
With the construction window being squeezed from both sides, some wonder whether the federal money could be lost.
Major construction on the rail line is unlikely to begin until the fall of 2013, said Brent Felker, the high-speed rail program director for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting company managing the statewide project for the rail authority, in a legal declaration filed in Sacramento Superior Court.
"Failure to complete construction in the timing required ... or if it appears that the construction timing cannot be met because of delays, risks the entire funding," Felker said.
Details of the updated schedule are included in the authority's arguments against a motion by Madera County, the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus and other high-speed rail opponents for a preliminary injunction. A hearing on the injunction is set for Nov. 16 in Sacramento.
A preliminary injunction, if granted by the judge, would prevent the rail authority from moving forward with the work until a trial on the lawsuits is completed. That would slow the project even more.
Two years ago, when Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo delivered a symbolic check to the rail authority at a ceremony in Fresno, officials touted a schedule that called for construction to begin in September 2012.
Still, rail authority CEO Jeffrey Morales said he believes the schedule is "do-able."
"We can't guarantee or crystal-ball every contingency," he said. "But we are confident we will meet the deadline."
Morales said that in a project of this size, complexity and scope, some changes are inevitable. Target dates within the schedule may evolve, he said last week, but the only concrete deadline is the expiration of the federal grant in September 2017.
"It's not lagging, it's just going through the process," Morales said. "Some things are changing, but we are continuing to make progress and move forward, and always with an eye on the hard deadline."
A moving target
Morales said that what Felker characterized as a March 2017 time frame for completion is a "target" date that represents when the authority needs to start submitting invoices to the federal government to make sure the grant funds are paid before they expire on Sept. 30, the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
"It's understandable that people want to know, 'What's your timing and how much is it going to cost?' " Morales said. "We have to answer those, and what we're providing is the best available information we have at the time, but things change."
Earlier this year, the rail authority anticipated accepting bids from contracting teams in August or September for the first construction section from Madera to the south end of Fresno. Now the bid deadline for would-be contractors is Nov. 2.
"We moved that back specifically at the request of the bidders," Morales said. "They wanted more time to look at things and develop their responses, and, quite frankly, it's in our best interest."
The bid date is one key part of a series of steps involving engineering, buying property for right of way, preliminary work such as relocating utilities and, finally, rolling out the bulldozers for the heavy work of building the line.
The authority does not expect to award a contract until at least late February or early March of next year, giving its staff and consultants a couple of months over the holiday season to evaluate the bids.
Once the bids come in, the authority has six months to select a contractor, negotiate a contract and issue a notice for the contractor to start work.
Felker said the agency anticipates needing almost all six months to buy the property for the right of way. But the authority cannot start making offers to landowners until it gets a green light from the state Public Works Board -- and that is not expected until sometime next month.
The land-buying schedule "is very challenging," Felker said in the court document. If the authority hasn't made enough progress in buying property by late April, he added, "the contractor will be restricted in the work it can do."
In a separate court declaration, Patricia Jones, the authority's director of real property, said some property appraisals and investigations for hazardous materials could be done this fall and winter before any offers are made to landowners. The authority must buy all or part of about 400 parcels for the Madera-Fresno stretch.
But, she added, "the authority does not anticipate making any offers until December 2012 at the soonest, and these would likely be very few in number, if any" because of the holiday season.
Jones said the first offers are expected to be in Fresno, south of the San Joaquin River. On the Madera County side, north of the river, "the bulk of offers will not be made until March or April 2013," she said in the court document.
Cushion built in
Morales said the project is being bid as a "design-build" contract -- which means that the winning bidder will be expected to finish the engineering and design work that is now about 30% complete before starting on the construction.
That, he said, gives the authority a cushion for buying land and preparing for construction.
The authority needs to buy land before it can do site-preparation work to pave the way for the major work by the prime contractor, he added.
Still, according to court documents, "physical work such as hazardous material remediation, utility relocation and limited building demolition could take place prior to full-scale construction, but almost certainly" not before mid-May.
The rail authority hopes to be able to buy right of way from willing sellers. But some property owners have vowed to fight -- which will require the authority to go to court, parcel by parcel.
Unlike some court cases that can linger for months or years, however, "eminent domain is a well-understood process that has clear time frames attached to it," Morales said.
But recalcitrant land owners aren't the only potential hitches in an ambitious schedule.
The same drawn-out process of seeking and screening bids, awarding a construction contract, and making offers to buy property will need to play out on at least three more stretches of the route between Fresno and Bakersfield -- from Fresno to Hanford, Hanford to Wasco, and Wasco to Bakersfield. A fifth contractor will be responsible for laying the tracks for the entire 130-mile line from Madera to Bakersfield.
None of that can even start until the rail authority finishes its environmental review for the Fresno-Bakersfield section -- something that's not expected until at least 2013. And once it's approved, it is likely to face the same sort of legal challenges from opponents that have been lodged in suits over the Merced-Fresno section.
The authority's court documents in the Madera County lawsuit say contractors will be expected to complete work by October 2016. Short of an injunction that would halt the agency's work, Morales said, he believes the authority has enough cushion to beat the clock on the September 2017 federal grant expiration.
"Everything about this project is going to be aggressive," he said, "but we believe it's do-able."