CA Rail Cost Soars to $98.5B Under New Plan

California’s planned high-speed rail line between San Francisco and the Los Angeles area will cost $98.5 billion, more than twice the previous estimate, and take until 2033 to complete, according to a revised business plan.

Construction will begin next year on a 130-mile “spine” through the Central Valley, according to the plan released today by the California High-Speed Rail Authority at a news conference in Sacramento, the state’s capital. The authority had estimated a cost of $43 billion and construction duration through 2020.

The plan “represents a departure from past efforts of the authority,” Dan Richard, an authority board member, said at the event. “In many ways, it responds to public criticisms of the high-speed rail program and we have taken those to heart and listened and reevaluated the program.”

California is the only state working to build tracks for 220 mile-per-hour trains, making the project central to President Barack Obama’s plan to speed up the U.S. rail system. The state has received $3.5 billion in U.S. funds for the project and had said it would need $17 billion to $19 billion. A U.S. Senate committee has approved a bill to cut 99 percent of high-speed rail funds Obama requested for 2012.

No Sugar-Coating

“There is a commitment to move forward. We have to move forward,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said today in a speech at Railtrends 2011, a freight-rail industry conference in New York. The California project “is substantially more cost-effective” than trying to build more roads and airports, he said.

The high-speed train system would initially span 520 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles through California’s Central Valley, a trip that would take an estimated two hours and 40 minutes.

The revised plan is “a good, solid document that allows very good, accurate cost accounting” of the project, Szabo said in an interview before his speech. “They didn’t sugar-coat anything.”

California Treasurer Bill Lockyer said his office will analyze the report over the next few weeks and offer a financial assessment.

“Authority officials are demonstrating a new commitment to having a more honest discussion with the public and policy makers about the costs, benefits and feasibility of the project,” he said in a statement.

Bond Sales

In 2008, California voters approved a ballot measure allowing the state to issue $9.95 billion in bonds toward the project.

So far, the state has sold $501.3 million of general- obligation bonds, including $91.2 million from a sale completed Oct. 19, said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Lockyer. The state will continue to sell bonds at the request of Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, Dresslar said.

“Their decisions are based on project needs and the administration’s priorities,” he said in an e-mail.

State Senator Doug LaMalfa, a Richvale Republican, said he will introduce a bill to put the bond issue before voters again.

“In three years we’ve seen the cost of this project increase 300 percent from what voters were told in 2008,” LaMalfa said in a statement.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has applied proceeds of bond sales so far to preliminary engineering and environmental review work along the line.

California has committed, but not yet sold, an additional $2.6 billion in bonds to match the $3.5 billion in U.S. funding for the project, said Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the rail authority.

The state will need to start selling those bonds next year to pay for the first phase of construction, through the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, Wall said. U.S. Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat, dubbed the route the “High Speed Train to Nowhere” because it does not serve major cities.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at avekshin@bloomberg.net; James Nash in Sacramento at jnash24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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