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California high-speed rail funding could be in jeopardy

January 3, 2012 | 10:43 am

freight train rolls past the Buena Park Metrolink station. Officials say upgrades could allow bullet trains to share rails already in use

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The Legislature should not authorize the issuance of $2.7 billion in bonds to start building California's $98.5-billion bullet train project, a state-appointed review panel says in a key report to be released later Tuesday.

The conclusion by the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group is a serious blow to the project as it is currently designed because state law specifically empowered the group to make recommendation before any serious money on the train could be spent.

Gov. Jerry Brown has said he intends to ask the Legislature this month to appropriate and sell bonds to raise billions of dollars to start construction of the project.

But that plan is facing an increasingly skeptical Legislature and general public. And now, lawmakers would have to disregard the recommendation of the very group it directed to guide it on the project if they decide to approve the bond issue.

Voters authorized $9 billion in bonds for the bullet train project in 2008, but the measure required that the Peer Review Group sign off on the feasibility and reasonableness of the plan to build the rail system before the state issues the bonds.

A recent poll indicates a sharp drop in public support for the project.

The report was expected to be issued Tuesday afternoon, but the overall conclusions were described to The Times by members of the group.

The panel concludes that the plan to start building a $6-billion initial segment of the project in the Central Valley without any assurance of additional federal funding for many years is not sound. It cites a lack of clarity in the business plan that was unveiled in November.

While the panel supports the concept of high-speed rail, it believes the best action now is to take a timeout on the project and reevaluate the overall goals, routes, financing and phasing of the effort, members of the panel said.

In an interview in late December, Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the budget subcommittee for transportation, said he also believed that a one-year delay in the project would allow time to reexamine and refine exactly what the state wants to do.

The California High Speed Rail Authority wants to build a 130-mile segment of the project in the Central Valley, running from Chowchilla to Bakersfield. Critics have questioned the entire strategy of starting the project in the Central Valley, rather than first improving rail systems at ends in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

For the record 2:05 p.m. Jan. 3: An earlier version of the post misstated the size of the initial bond issue proposed to build the first phase of the high-speed rail project as $6 billion. The correct figure is $2.7 billion.

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-- Ralph Vartabedian

Photo: A freight train rolls past the Buena Park Metrolink station. Officials say upgrades could allow bullet trains to share rails already in use. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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