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Calif. bullet train plan gains speed

(CBS/AP) FRESNO, Calif. - California's high-speed rail authority released a fresh proposal Monday for a bullet train linking Northern and Southern California, with a price tag of $68.4 billion and a scaled-back design to address sustained criticism of a project that has been called a boondoggle and a train to nowhere.

The revised proposal speeds completion to 2028, about five years earlier, and puts the cost at $30 billion less than a draft plan released last fall.

However, the cost is still $25 billion more than the plan voters approved four years ago.

The revised plan merges the bullet train with existing commuter rail lines in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles basin, providing nearly $1 billion to electrify existing rail tracks in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, which officials say would speed up rail service and possibly generate more riders.

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Michael Rossi, a member of the rail authority's board and a senior adviser on jobs and business for California Gov. Jerry Brown, called the new plan credible and reasonable.

"This project, like the state highway system or the water project, will transform the California economy and help it remain one of the most innovative in the world," he said at a Fresno news conference to release the plan.

Brown, a Democrat, has asked the California High-Speed Rail Authority to revamp its earlier proposal and make construction quicker and cheaper after a draft plan said the project's cost had more than doubled to $98 billion.

Under the updated plan, the Central Valley and the San Fernando Valley would be linked by trains moving at speeds up to 220 mph would link by 2023, expanding on what originally had been proposed as a 130-mile Madera-to-Bakersfield section that critics had lampooned as a "train to nowhere."

Yet the plan still appears to rely heavily upon highly questionable federal financing and private sector investment, noted Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

"We've seen numbers in the $30 billion, $40 billion, the $90 billion range, and now we're back in the $60 billion range," Simitian said. He said some of that is semantics, but "I think there is understandably both some confusion and skepticism about what is the system going to cost, and then there's the question of where is the money going to come from?"

Brown will make the case for the rail project when he asks the Legislature in the coming weeks to appropriate $2.3 billion in rail bonds to begin constructing the first phase by year's end.

"We feel good that we've addressed a lot of the public concerns," said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "We feel this is a very, very reasonable and workable path forward for the state."

Brown ordered the board to rethink its previous proposal as polls showed a majority of voters would like to reconsider the $9 billion in startup funding they authorized for the network four years ago.

The updated plan relies heavily on improving existing rail lines in urban areas instead of building dedicated track the whole way.

The so-called "blended" system would still move travelers from Los Angeles' Union Station to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes at speeds up to 220 mph, as voters were promised when they authorized the bullet train system, Richard said.

Nearly $2 billion in upgrades would be made to existing commuter rail lines in the state's urban corridors.

Eventually, riders will not have to change trains when riding between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he said.

"Every step of the way, we will be connected to something and be able to improve service in the intermediate level while building out" a bigger system, Richard said of the "blended system."

Officials said the system would turn a profit even with lower ridership numbers in the revised plan.

A summary of the plan says that getting the first segment built within 10 years and expected positive cash flow will serve as a "launching pad" for private investment in the construction and operation of the full system.

The new plan also assumes an additional $4 billion from the federal government over the next 10 years, despite significant congressional opposition. The state already is expected to receive $3.5 billion in federal money if it breaks ground before the end of the year.

The bulk of the remaining cost would come from fares and private financing, with any shortfall bridged by tapping into California's new industrial "cap-and-trade" program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Critics say the numbers still won't pencil out, although they hadn't seen the revised proposal.

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said the authority's changing plans should lead lawmakers to block the sale of the bonds for the project.

"The entire high-speed rail project needs to go back to the drawing board," she said.