Repeating the mantra "Better, faster and cheaper," Fresno leaders joined California High-Speed Rail Authority officials Monday to unveil a new business plan for the passenger-train project.
The 212-page plan outlined by authority chairman Dan Richard lops nearly $30 billion off the cost of establishing a system of electric-powered trains capable of carrying passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles, through the San Joaquin Valley, in 2 hours and 40 minutes.
An earlier version of the plan, released in November, estimated the price of the system at $98 billion. That was for a line that included new tracks dedicated only to high-speed trains for the entire 520-mile length of the system from downtown San Francisco through downtown Los Angeles to Anaheim.
The revised plan declares that the same travel times can be achieved through a "blended system" in which high-speed trains would share tracks or right of way with existing but upgraded lines used by commuter trains along the San Francisco peninsula and the Los Angeles basin.
That can be accomplished, the plan suggests, at a cost of about $68.4 billion, accounting for inflation over the next two decades.
High-speed rail "changes everything," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said in a news conference at downtown's historic Southern Pacific Railroad depot, not far from where the city expects its high-speed station to be built.
The trains, Swearengin said, would provide "connectivity from the middle of the state to urban areas" and offer greater opportunities for local entrepreneurs who are now geographically isolated from potential jobs and clients in Los Angeles or the Bay Area.
The new plan still calls for starting construction next year on a 120-mile stretch of high-speed tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield.
But rather than a stand-alone project that has been roundly criticized as a "train to nowhere," it is just one portion of continuous development of a fully operational, electrified 300-mile segment from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, possibly as far as Burbank, by 2022. Trains on the line could reach a top speed of 220 mph.
For months, authority leaders have considered two options for developing the first operational section: either from Bakersfield to the Bay Area, or from Merced to the Los Angeles Basin. The new plan solidifies the preference to head south.
"When you look at the numbers and how quickly you can build ridership and see where your revenues are coming from, financially, the only sensible answer is to go south," rail authority board member Michael Rossi told reporters Saturday in a preview of the plan.
Heading south and crossing the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Palmdale, Richard added, will close "the most critical passenger rail gap in the state."
Passengers on Amtrak's San Joaquin trains can ride from Oakland or Sacramento to Bakersfield, but to go on to or return from Los Angeles, they must get off the train and board a bus to cross the Tehachapi range.
"Closing that gap over to Palmdale will be of enormous significance," Richard said Saturday. "There are 200,000 people a year taking the bus between Bakersfield and Los Angeles coming off of the Amtrak service."
Richard said the new plan offers benefits for the San Joaquin Valley even before high-speed trains begin rolling.
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