In the face of growing opposition and concern over soaring costs, the California High Speed Rail Authority Board (“Authority”) is betting that the answer to this question will be “yes.” The Authority met yesterday for its August board meeting and focused on laying more groundwork for the “Initial Construction Segment” or “ICS” in the San Joaquin Valley. Staff presented its plans to immediately release the Request for Proposals (“RFP”) for Right-of-Way Services to acquire the rights-of-way necessary to start construction. The Authority unanimously approved the terms of the RFP and anticipates it will be released in mid-September.
In addition to approving the RFP, this is the first time the Authority has met since the Draft Environmental Impact Reports/Environmental Impact Statements (“DEIR/DEIS”) for the Fresno to Bakersfield and Merced to Fresno routes have been released. After some admitted technical glitches and multiple extension-of-time requests, the Authority’s CEO, Roelof van Ark, announced the Authority’s decision to formally extend the public comment period on the DEIR/DEIS an additional 15 days, giving the public until October 13, 2011 to submit comments. However, the public hearings on the draft environmental documents are still scheduled to be held between September 20 – 22, 2011
It was evident throughout the meeting that getting an immediate start on the project is a top priority, even with the stark reality that there will be insufficient federal funding to complete an “Initial Operating Section” or “IOS.” KPMG, one of the Authority’s many hired consultants, gave a critical update on the High Speed Rail’s much-anticipated Business Plan, which is required to be submitted to the State Legislature by January 1, 2012. KPMG’s report highlighted the fact that the Authority has secured $3.33 billion in Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for the ICS. However, currently there is no federal funding to complete one of two planned IOS’s, either the IOS-North (extending from the northern end of the ICS to Merced and San Jose), or the IOS-South (extending from the southern end of the ICS to the San Fernando Valley). Because the total cost for the project is anticipated to be $3-4 billion per year for the next 15+ years, with major funding needed from the federal government, some members of Authority’s Board expressed concern that the rest of the project would be left unfinished after the ICS is built. Given the rancor over the federal budget deficit in Washington and recent Congressional agreements to implement far-reaching budget cutting actions over the next several years, these concerns are appear quite valid.
Despite these concerns, however, the Authority’s strategy seems to be that it ought to move quickly to complete the ICS, as it will likely be more difficult to pull the plug on a project that has broken ground than a project that is only in its planning stages. The draft 2012 Business Plan will be available for public review and comment in October. Authority Vice-Chair Lynn Schenk remarked that the 2012 Business Plan will be critical in changing the public’s perception about the project. That being said, the Authority has its work cut out for it for the remainder of the year.