California’s bullet train project will likely require more time and money to complete than last estimated, but its new chief executive is promising more transparency with the public about its challenges.
“It’s going to be bumpy,” said Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “What’s important to me is you hear that from us.”
The rail authority on Friday will release its latest business plan, a biennial snapshot of building timelines, cost estimates and other critical details about the ambitious plan to transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours.
It will be the first plan since Kelly took over the project in February after leading the state’s transportation agency and comes on the heels of a nearly $3 billion cost increase on a segment of track underway in the Central Valley and repeated delays.
The last plan put the estimated cost at $64 billion, with a train running between the two major cities by 2029.
Despite the challenges, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown reaffirmed his commitment to building high-speed rail in his January state of the state address. The Legislature, though, recently approved an audit of the project. The Legislature serves in an oversight role and controls a portion of the money to build rail.
“I’m ready for Mr. Kelly to be honest and straightforward and tell us the good, bad and the ugly,” said Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno, a chief critic of the project.
This time, Kelly doesn’t plan to offer a single price tag. Instead, the plan will include ranges outlining how little the project could cost if certain things go well and how expensive it could be if things go wrong. He said he’ll put a cost on every project risk, such as environmental or other delays.
“I think the one number is a mistake, and I think it has hurt us,” he said. “People have hit us for ‘it’s up, it’s down, it’s this, it’s that,’ and I just want to say ‘look, here’s where we are at this point in time, there are some unknowns, there’s an estimate for what it will be, there’s a high and a low and we’re going to manage it.'”
The plan could also address long-term funding challenges.
The state has spent $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money and has another $930 million in federal money on the table. Voters also approved a nearly $10 billion bond for rail in 2008.
The rest of the money comes from the state’s cap-and-trade auctions, a volatile source of revenue that can be diverted by lawmakers in the future. Predicted private investment hasn’t come in either, although Kelly hopes businesses and other private investors will chip in once part of the train is up and running between Silicon Valley and the Central Valley.
Critics have their doubts.
“My biggest concern is we end up with a rump railroad from just outside Bakersfield to just outside Merced,” Patterson said.