SACRAMENTO, California — The chairman of the board that oversees California's high-speed rail project said Wednesday that the next projection will likely lower the cost of building the train route from the current $68 billion, but he is less confident about its current predictions for how quickly the system can be built.
Board Chairman Dan Richard and other officials were called to testify at an Assembly hearing examining the project's cost projections and other concerns raised by lawmakers.
"There are a range of uncertainties here, so I can't look you in the eye and tell you it will be $68 billion. I will tell you this: When you see our new business plan, the number's going to be less than $68 billion," Richard told a Republican lawmaker who has been critical of the project.
"I'm more confident about the dollars, sir, than about the time. It may take us a little longer to do this than we said," Richard added.
The 2014 business plan said the first 520-mile phase linking the San Francisco Bay Area to greater Los Angeles would be finished in 2028, but construction has been beset by delays in acquiring land needed for the first segment in the Central Valley and by slow-going environmental approvals.
The head of an independent review group tasked with overseeing the rail agency's planning said even though it considers California's projections "state of the art," no one really knows how much the rail system will end up costing.
"No one should tell you now that the number is going to be 67 or 43 or anything like that. Nobody knows," said Louis Thompson, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group. "There is a range of variation and we have to understand that that's what we're working with."
He urged lawmakers to consider funding for a permanent legislative high-speed rail oversight body.
The Legislature approved the first long-term funding source for high-speed rail in the 2014-15 budget, giving it a quarter of funds from fees charged to polluters. The deal reached with Gov. Jerry Brown, who supports the project, also called for officials to speed up construction in Southern California to appease lawmakers from the Los Angeles area.
CEO Jeff Morales and Richard said Wednesday that officials have not selected a route, meaning it could go from the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area before it heads south. That could be a faster way to get trains operating, as the process of tunneling through the Tehachapi mountains will require complicated, expensive engineering.
The project has faced continuing criticism, particularly in Central Valley and Southern California communities it might traverse.
Residents who traveled to testify at Wednesday's hearing were upset when the chairman limited their testimony to one minute each, citing time constraints.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, a critic of the project, criticized the Democratically controlled committee for only allotting 90 minutes for the hearing, but Democrats on the panel promised more hearings once the business plan is released.
On other funding questions, Morales pledged that he's confident the rail authority will meet its September 2017 deadline to spend $2.2 billion in federal matching funds, ensuring the project will not lose out on the critical federal dollars.
Morales said the $68 billion price tag includes $10.9 billion in contingencies for unexpected cost increases and inflation, but he added, "the faster we get this built, the less it will cost."