The chairman of California's high-speed rail agency says the ambitious project to build America's first bullet train will probably need an infusion of state bond funds by the coming spring to stay on track.
"We have a very tight relationship with the feds," said Dan Richard, chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority. "They understand exactly what the situation is and how far we can go before we have to do something else."
The agency's board of directors met Thursday, the first chance to assess a trio of tumultuous decisions over the past few weeks. Last month, a Sacramento superior court judge ruled the rail authority must revamp its business plan before any of $9 billion in voter-approved state bonds can be sold. And on Wednesday, federal officials rejected a state request to expedite the approval process of the train's second construction phase, a 114 mile segment between Fresno and Bakersfield.
Jeff Morales, CEO of the rail authority, told board members Thursday the decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board was not a setback, but rather updated guidance from Washington, D.C. on how to proceed.
So far, the train project has relied on $3.3 billion in federal stimulus funds, money that ultimately must be matched with state dollars.
Meantime, the first phase of construction -- a 27 mile segment from Madera to the southern city limits of Fresno-- could break ground as soon as next month, later than projections earlier this year of a start before the end of 2013.
All told, that initial work is estimated to cost $5.48 billion. Rail agency officials say they have identified 401 separate parcels of land needed to complete the segment, but only a handful are currently in active negotiation to purchase. State officials are now expected early next year to ask for the power of eminent domain to acquire at least three of the parcels in the Madera to Fresno corridor.
Thursday's board meeting played out in a familiar fashion, with speakers during the public comment period both lauding and lamenting the status of the train project.
"You continue to mismanage this project to the embarrassment of the Californians who are paying for it," said Alan Scott, a representative of Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability.
The agency's directors decided Thursday to try again in court to pull off one of the more widely debated legal strategies: a 'validation' of the 2008 Proposition 1A bonds, which would force any and all objections to the sale of the bonds to be heard in a single court action. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny nixed the first such attempt by the agency to dismiss its critics.
In the meantime, the bullet train's leaders say 2013 left the project on solid ground, pointing primarily to the selection this past summer of the construction firms that will design and build the initial Valley segment. They argue the ongoing debate over high speed rail often misses the big picture of progress.
"If something bad happens, it gets amplified," board chairman Richard told reporters after Thursday's meeting. "If something good happens, it more or less gets ignored. And this organization has come a long way in two years."