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California High-Speed Rail's Central Track Completion Delayed by Four Years

The High-Speed Rail Authority informed the Obama administration, in a contract amendment, that it expects the Central Valley track to be complete by 2022 instead of 2018 as originally projected.

(TNS) -- It was supposed to be the easiest section of the high-speed rail project: a 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley that would serve as the testing ground for the high-speed trains before tracks are expanded south to Los Angeles and north to San Francisco.

But it's proving to be more difficult than anticipated. On Wednesday, the High-Speed Rail Authority informed the Obama administration, in a contract amendment, that it expects the Central Valley track to be complete by 2022 instead of 2018 as originally projected.

Difficulty buying property and legal challenges contributed to the new timeline.

The four-year change sparked an onslaught of criticism from those who already oppose the $64 billion project, particularly Central Valley Republican lawmakers who have promised to block any additional federal funding once the current grant expires next year.

"I think it's more evidence that the authority is just making it up as they go along," said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. "There is something deeply flawed in their planning. It looks like the Obama administration is aiding and abetting a slapped-together plan."

The High-Speed Rail Authority dismissed the notion that there has been a new delay in the project, saying the grant contract had not been amended since 2012 to reflect new timelines.

"Between 2012 and 2016, a lot has happened," said Lisa Marie Alley, spokeswoman for the rail authority.

Alley said the date change in the federal grant aligns with what the authority has been projecting for the past several years.

Revised plan

The biggest change was announced in February when the authority said the track will be laid from the Central Valley to Silicon Valley first, instead of to Los Angeles first. The 2016 revised business plan estimates the 250-mile track between Bakersfield and San Jose would be operational in 2025. By then, the Caltrain system on the Peninsula would be completely electrified and, using those tracks, the rail would be immediately able to connect to San Francisco, according to the authority's business plan.

Nothing has changed about those timelines, Alley said Wednesday.

The first leg of tracks in the Central Valley needs to be completed so that the authority can start testing trains and a signaling system, which Alley said will be done as the rail builds into the Bay Area.

The contract amendment signed Wednesday also streamlines payments the rail authority can make to use federal dollars to buy land and homes to make way for the trains.

The authority has spent $1.172 billion in federal funds so far on the project. Alley said the authority is on track to use all of the remaining $3.3 billion available from a 2009 federal stimulus grant, with the state matching that funding after federal dollars expire Sept. 30, 2017.

"The people who are calling this a delay are opponents of this project who will utilize something positive like this amendment because they are not advocates of high-speed rail," Alley said.

Jessica Peters, a principal fiscal and policy analyst with the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, said the 2022 completion date for finishing the Central Valley segment is "not unexpected, but new."

"The High-Speed Rail Authority has had some delays that have been known about for some time," Peters said.

Less track, more money

That Central Valley segment was projected at first to be 130 miles and cost $5.9 billion, according to a report by the analyst's office. The authority's latest business plan estimates a 119-mile stretch to cost $7.3 billion to complete.

Peters said it's ambitious for the authority to estimate it can finish the line to San Jose just three years after wrapping up the Central Valley segment in 2022.

The rail authority reported in 2014 that it expected to complete the line from Merced to Los Angeles by 2022 at a cost of $31 billion. However, heading south to the Los Angeles area posed several issues -- particularly engineering a route through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains.

That sparked a change in plans this year when the authority announced its course was changing to the Bay Area.

Gov. Jerry Brown remains a major supporter of the project, saying Wednesday at a California Chamber of Commerce event that he's looking forward to "sitting in the rail car with a bourbon and rocks, looking at my iPhone. That's a lot more pleasant than after I leave the governorship, you know, hunched over the wheel with my blood pressure rising."

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock (Stanislaus County), said the contract amendment signed Wednesday was done without notifying Congress and that he will call for congressional hearings.

"The Obama Administration has just written a blank check and is trying to skirt federal law with so-called stimulus funding," Denham said in a statement.

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle