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High-Speed Rail Costs Grow in California

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Long-awaited environmental impact documents were released Tuesday for the Central Valley sections of California's high-speed rail project, revealing that building tracks for the first section of the proposed project will cost $2.9 billion to $6.8 billion more than originally estimated. According to The Business Journal of Fresno the project has already received $5.5 billion in federal dollars and is counting on another $12 billion from private investors and nearly $10 billion from bonds approved by voters in 2008.

A 2009 business plan developed for the California High-Speed Authority had originally estimated costs at about $7.1 billion for the equivalent stretch of tracks. Officials say those estimates were made before detailed engineering work and feedback from communities along the proposed route. The Sacramento Bee reports on the criticisms that have plagued the project from day 1:

"The decision to start the planned 800-mile system in the Central Valley linking relatively small towns, has generated criticism that the project could become a high-priced 'train to nowhere.' In a critical report earlier this year, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's office said the rail line should start near coastal population centers and recommended moving control of the project from the largely independent rail board to the state Department of Transportation. The eventual plan is for a system of high-speed trains running from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim, with stops in the Central Valley.

Critics say the higher cost estimates contained in the environmental reports, the first detailed look at the project, is another warning sign that the rail line should be halted until cost and routing questions can be worked out."

The plan to approve the inaugural Central Valley stretch of tracks in December 2010 drew early criticism. Representative Dennis Cardoza, a Central Valley Democrat, told the New York Times in January:

"For the California High-Speed Rail Authority to choose this route is to significantly undermine the public’s trust, marks a gross misuse of taxpayer funds and will alienate significant supporters of the project."

Republican state senators like Doug La Malfa of Willows are preparing legislation that would ask voters to reconsider the project in June 2012.

"This thing is well on its way to massive cost overruns.The costs are starting to escalate and we need to take a time-out."

Voters authorized $9 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, although most of those bonds have not yet been sold.

California has looked to guidance from China in implementing their high-speed rail, even after a massive bullet train crash last month that killed 32 and injured 191. At the expense of the Chinese Ministry of Railways, a group of state lawmakers flew this week to China to see if California can learn anything from that country about building a high-speed rail system.

With a $20 billion deficit and an inability to close it, plans like a costly high-speed rail project suggest that any hope of lowering debt in California is perhaps going nowhere.

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