(Adds comments by lawmakers, labor group)
By Jim Christie
SAN FRANCISCO, April 2 California officials on
Monday unveiled a major overhaul of a controversial plan to
build a high-speed rail system in the state, slashing the cost
by some $30 billion, to $68.4 billion, and addressing other
criticisms of the massive project.
The new plan must now receive a final blessing from the
California High Speed Rail Authority before going to the state
legislature, which has to approve the release of the first chunk
of the nearly $10 billion in rail bond funds voters approved in
The state must greenlight the spending and sell the first of
the bonds to obtain $3.3 billion in federal matching funds and
start construction in the fall as planned.
Planning for the project has been sharply criticized after
cost estimates ballooned to nearly $100 billion and the High
Speed Rail Authority failed to quell opposition from communities
that would be affected by the train lines, especially the
wealthy suburbs south of San Francisco.
Governor Jerry Brown, a staunch supporter of the project,
responded with a shake-up of the High Speed Rail Authority,
which was then charged with producing a new business plan.
Under the new proposal, much of the initial spending would
go toward upgrading commuter train tracks near San Francisco and
Los Angeles rather than building separate lines. That approach
is supported by local transit officials who see an opportunity
to improve existing services.
The so-called "blended system" design could also mean
increased travel times, though the new plan still projects a
two-hour, forty minute travel time between San Francisco and Los
The new plan also proposes an initial track - which would be
the first high-speed rail corridor in the United States -
linking the Central Valley town of Merced to the San Fernando
Valley at the doorstep of Los Angeles.
The federal grant money requires that construction start in
the farm-rich Central Valley, but the previous proposal to start
with a regional line connecting the cities of Fresno and
Bakersfield was widely ridiculed as a "train to nowhere."
The plan proposes expanding the system with new tracks only
when the legislature identifies funding for the work.
The plan notably proposes using revenue raised through
California's new carbon trading system for reducing greenhouse
gasses, which goes into effect this year and is expected to
raise billions in revenue.
Democrats responded cautiously to the new plan.
Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat who chairs a subcommittee
overseeing high-speed rail, said lawmakers may not take up the
matter of bonds for the rail system before the June 15 deadline
for a state budget as they believe Brown, a Democrat, will urge.
"We need to take the time to get this right," Simitian said.
Republicans said they remain concerned about the price tag
for the system and whether it can truly operate without
subsidies as its proponents say it can.
They're also doubtful about the prospects for money from
Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey said members of
Congress told her during a recent trip to Washington that they
will not approve further funds for high-speed rail in
California, though they may back assistance for existing
regional rail lines.
Republican Senator Doug LaMalfa said he was not impressed by
the new plan, adding that would press on with efforts for a
ballot measure asking voters to reject the state debt they had
approved for the rail system.
LaMalfa said the plan's proposed work on existing regional
rail lines was an attempt to "buy off" lawmakers from urban
areas and that California cannot afford the less expensive
high-speed rail effort outlined in the plan.
"We have no more dollars available now than we had last week
to build this," LaMalfa said.
The California Labor Federation, an influential union group
in the state's politics, embraced the new plan, noting its
potential for expanding payrolls.
California's unemployment rate stood at 10.9 percent in
February, compared with a nationwide jobless rate that month of
"High-speed rail will transform our state's economy and lead
to sustained job growth," California Labor Federation
Executive-Secretary Treasurer Art Pulaski said in a statement.
"The construction of the project will put hundreds of thousands
of Californians, who have lost jobs through no fault of their
own, back to work."
(Reporting By Jim Christie; Editing by Jonathan Weber and