An artist's depiction of a high-speed rail depot. (California High-Speed…)
SAN FRANCISCO — A formal plan to build a California bullet train that would become partially operational in 10 years was approved by the state rail agency Thursday, though the blueprint was amended at the last minute to include a goal of providing service to Orange County.
The decision represents the culmination of more than two decades of planning and political battles over a project that aims to reshape the future, transporting passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes but at a staggering cost of $68 billion.
The revision to include Orange County came after The Times reported last week that bullet trains would not reach Anaheim as long planned, meaning passengers would have to transfer to commuter rail trains in Los Angeles. That disclosure led to a barrage of last-minute criticism by business interests in the county, forcing the rail agency to reconsider. The last-minute controversy reflects the reality that some critical decisions about the project remain open-ended.
The project now needs the approval of the Legislature, which is being asked by Gov. Jerry Brown to provide $2.7 billion for an initial 130 miles of track in the Central Valley.
A relentless barrage of criticism of the project across the state resulted in major changes that have lowered the system's costs, reduced risk and softened some of the extreme effects on communities along the route, officials said.
"We are in a much better place than we were six or eight months ago," said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "We have a much more cohesive plan, but there is still a lot of work ahead."
Still, Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale), a fierce opponent of the project, has charged that even now the system is smaller and more expensive than what was promised to voters when they approved money for it in 2008. He is sponsoring legislation to allow a new vote on the project.
"California's budget is already stretched too thin, and this is a luxury our citizens don't want, don't need and can't afford," he said.
The plan approved Thursday would create an initial operating segment from the San Fernando Valley to Merced, allowing passengers to transfer into the high-speed rail network from the Metrolink system in the early years. Passengers could reach Bakersfield in one hour on a route through Palmdale, for example.
Later, the lines would extend to San Jose, linking to the Caltrain commuter rail system. By 2028, a unified system would operate between Union Station and the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco.
The approved plan represents a major change from the initial concept, in which the system would operate on exclusive track. Instead, the trains would ride on track shared with commuter and freight trains in the urban zones and stop at about a dozen cities or towns along the way.
Under the new plan, the system would have up to 48 miles of tunnels through mountains and 140 miles of viaducts soaring over cities and farmlands. It would cost roughly $100 million per mile to build, representing the largest infrastructure project in the nation.
Brown added former banker Michael Rossi to the rail authority board last year to bring a more conservative business approach. Under Rossi's work, the system is supposed to easily surpass the required $218 million in operating revenues to break even by 2022. And by the time the full system is completed in about 2028, it would generate $1.53 billion in revenue under the lowest possible passenger ridership, nearly double the revenue it would need to break even.
But critics remain unconvinced by those and other numbers. They say the massive project would further strain California's weak financial condition and never effectively compete against some of the best highway and airport networks in the nation. Other critics assert the project violates the terms of the 2008 ballot measure that approved $9.95 billion in funding.
The rail authority had long planned to include direct service to Anaheim, but when the business plan was unveiled earlier this month it cryptically mentioned that the only way to reach the station there would involve transferring from Union Station via Metrolink or Amtrak.
The news that Anaheim would not have direct bullet train service resulted in "a number of comments from business and civic leaders in Orange County," Richard acknowledged, including by the Orange County Business Council that represents Disneyland and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
A group of transportation agencies, the Southern California Passenger Rail Coalition, was quickly formed. Under a motion adopted Thursday, the rail authority now "supports the goal" of providing passengers a "one seat ride to and from Anaheim" — meaning no one would need to change trains — and vowed to find a low-cost option to achieve it.
Richard said one option would involve electrifying the rail line from Union Station to Anaheim, allowing existing Metrolink diesel trains to operate under the wires. But the authority is supposed to also look at other potential options.
The board action came after nearly two hours of public comment by individuals, union representatives, public officials and critics. Board member Lynn Schenk said she was particularly impressed by the number of young people who showed up to support the project, adding that it is really an investment not for the current generation but for future generations.
"We are 30 years behind the rest of the world," said rail authority board member Bob Balgenorth. "It is time for us to move ahead and catch up."