Bullet train officials defend project in wake of recent obstacles, unpaid bills

There's something especially striking about the reduced speed at which California's high speed rail dream has seemed to be traveling in recent months.

That dream can't accelerate without cash; in fact, the slower it goes, the higher the cost.

"Delay costs money," says Dan Richard, chairman of the state's high speed rail authority board. "And I always tell people, 'If you want this project built cheaper, held us build it faster.'"

The plea was made on Tuesday after a relatively uneventful monthly meeting of the board that oversees California's bullet train agency. Board members authorized agency officials to accept bids on the second phase of construction in the Central Valley -- where it's believed five engineering firms will ultimately submit proposals -- and heard an update on the progress of a new business plan for the project.

The revised plan is a key step; it was the existing plan that last year a Sacramento judge ruled doesn't meet the standards of 2008's Proposition 1A, the $9 billion bond measure approved by voters as seed money for the $68 billion San Francisco to Los Angeles train project (with points north and south of those cities sometime later).

Agency officials expect the new business plan to be presented to the Legislature before the summer. And while that could settle the existing legal hurdle, state officials are appealing the lower court ruling in hopes of killing any future challenges based on the project's alignment with the bond measure's provisions.

The delay in selling bonds has forced the agency to, so to speak, lay a set of tracks around the obstacle in the train's immediate path. At Tuesday's hearing, CEO Jeff Morales reported to the board that the high speed rail authority has some $7.85 million in unpaid bills.

A spokesperson for the agency later said much of that is due to a dispute with vendors.

More than $1.5 million of the invoices, though, will be paid with federal dollars -- money the Obama administration, through the Federal Railroad Administration, is taking out of California's allotted $2.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars. That's even though the state portion, to be paid with the Prop 1A bond funds, remains in legal limbo.

"We have a president who wants this project, we have a governor who wants this project," said rail authority board chairman Richard. "And this is a great example of cooperation."

The train project's finances would also by buoyed by Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to give it $250 million in funds collected from the state's auction of greenhouse gas emitting credits.

Critics on Tuesday latched on to a recent independent analysis that raises questions about whether the train system's positive impact on climate change meshes with the 2006 law that governs the use of those auction profits.

"It will take years for you to acquire the greenhouse gas advantages that are advertised to the public," said Frank Oliveira, a member of Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability, a group critical of the project.

And when will ground actually break on the first construction segment, a 27 mile stretch from Madera to the southern city limits of Fresno? Rail agency officials point out preliminary work on that first segment is already well underway. Still, for a project that's attracted multiple calls for a do-over vote on the bonds and has struggled to keep support in recent polls, the symbolism of that shovel in the ground could provide a big boost.

Agency board chairman Dan Richard told reporters Tuesday he expects -- or, perhaps, hopes -- "dirt will be flying in a couple of months."


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