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Joe Biden says California high-speed rail looking good for federal money

June 3, 2009 |  3:17 pm

Though California is in the throes of a budget crisis, Vice President Joe Biden said today that the state’s high-speed rail project was well-positioned to compete for a significant share of the $8 billion that the Obama administration has set aside in the Recovery Act for high-speed rail lines -- possibly more than 10%.

This summer, California officials will be vying against other states and regions for federal money to build a high-speed rail corridor that would ferry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a quick, 2-hour, 40-minute trip.
The state’s voters approved $9 billion in bonds for the project in November -- and promoters hope the federal government and the private sector will kick in enough money to help them complete the $34-billion first phase.

Construction of that first phase between Anaheim and San Francisco would take at least a decade, according to planners. Ultimately, proponents envision an 800-mile network -- costing at least $45 billion -- that would reach Sacramento and San Diego. Skeptics argue the state’s High Speed Rail Authority has exaggerated travel times and predict the costs will balloon far beyond current estimates.

The Obama administration is still developing criteria on how to allocate the $8 billion from the Recovery Act for the rail projects, but Biden said federal officials would “look at projects that could be completed quickly and have measurable impact” -- chiefly in taking cars off the road.

“The reason why California is looked at so closely -- it’s been a priority of your governor, it’s been a priority of your Legislature, they’ve talked about it, a lot of planning has been done,” Biden said in a conference call with reporters after meeting in Washington with officials from several states about the potential high-speed rail projects. “And although I can’t answer with specificity, it’s possible some of these legs may be more shovel-ready than others.”

The vice president said the administration wants “to get shovel ready projects out the door as quickly as we can.… So California is in the game,”  he said.
Though guidelines for the grant applications are still under discussion, Mehdi Morshed, the executive director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, said state officials have identified two sections of the project that could meet the Recovery Act criteria for high-speed rail of having contracts awarded by 2012 and work completed by 2017. The sections would be those between Los Angeles and Anaheim, at a cost of $3 billion, and between San Francisco and San Jose, at a cost of $4 billion to $5 billion, Morshed said. The money could pay for laying tracks, building tunnels and bridges, and acquiring right-of-way, he said, adding that it could pay for “everything short of buying the trains.”

“We think California is in the best position to get the money,”  Morshed said. “…We are the only state that has $9 billion of its own money and the commitment to building high-speed rail.”

Earlier this year, President Obama announced that his administration would set aside $13 billion to develop the nation’s high-speed railways. In addition to the $8 billion coming from the Recovery Act, the administration is seeking an additional $1 billion a year for the next five years in the federal budget.
The money will be parceled out by the Federal Railroad Administration, with the first round of grants distributed as early as this summer. 

-- Maeve Reston

Photo: French high speed rail. L.A. Times file