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All aboard: California high-speed rail planners prepare to put out billions in contracts

February 9, 2011 |  4:03 pm

California’s bullet train planners Wednesday cracked open the flood gates for bidders expected to rush in seeking billions of dollars in construction work projected to start next year.

Requests for expressions of interest were sent to thousands of large and small contractors worldwide that may want a piece of the first phase of the $43-billion network that is supposed to connect the Bay Area and Southern California with trains running up to 220 mph.

Officials portrayed Wednesday’s announcement as a milestone for one of the largest public works project in the nation’s history, an endeavor that could ultimately create hundreds of thousands of construction and other jobs.
Work on the first $5.5-billion section of track, from north of Fresno to the outskirts of Bakersfield, is scheduled to begin late next year. Wednesday’s solicitations were a step toward issuing contracts for that work.

But officials are also calling for ideas from major global investors and rail operators about financing, building and/or running the larger system.
“We’re at a point to allow them to describe how they envision getting involved,” Jeffrey Barker, deputy executive director of the state High-Speed Rail Authority told reporters in a conference call.

Landing billions in private financing is crucial to completing the project, which a range of state government watchdog groups have said lacks an adequate business plan.
The initial, non-operational Central Valley segment will consume much of the federal and state money currently pledged to the system. The Obama administration this week said it wants more than $50 billion in additional federal outlays for high-speed rail systems in coming years. But congressional critics are threatening to scale back that kind of spending.

The rail authority has assured lawmakers and the public that there is strong private sector interest in helping pay for the project. Wednesday’s action is a formal attempt to gauge that commitment. Responses are due in March. 
-- Rich Connell