State lawmakers will have their first opportunity to quiz the officials responsible for California's $64 billion high-speed rail plans at a committee hearing Monday to review a new business plan that calls for overhauling its proposed route and postponing the first service by three years.
Those overseeing the project are expected to face tough questions about the plan to shift construction to the San Francisco Bay Area rather than head first to Southern California, an acknowledgement of the financial and political challenges that have plagued the project.
The new plan calls for building the first 250-mile segment from the rural town of Shafter to San Jose at a cost of nearly $21 billion. The first leg would begin operating in 2025, three years later and 50 miles shorter than the original planned route that would have sent trains to the San Fernando Valley.
Project backers are touting it as the first plan to build a fully operable line using only available funding. But a briefing prepared for lawmakers ahead of Monday's meeting notes: "The funding outlined by the authority is far from guaranteed and associated risks remain high.''
The Legislature approved the first long-term funding source for high-speed rail in the 2014-15 budget, giving it a quarter of funds from fees charged to polluters, about $500 million a year. The rail project also has about $3.2 billion in federal stimulus funds and nearly $10 billion in bond money approved by California voters in 2008.
Public concern has increased as land acquisition got underway in the Central Valley. A poll last week by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, found a slim majority of Californians still support high-speed rail; though support is much more enthusiastic with a lower price tag.
Lawmakers so far have played only a limited role in high-speed rail.
The state's independent legislative analyst this month urged the Legislature to become more involved, suggesting that it require more detailed planning on the cost, scope and schedule of each high-speed rail segment.
Some Southern California lawmakers are also concerned about the decision to bring service north before it heads south.
Monday's meeting of the Assembly Transportation Committee is expected to allow more time for public comment than an Assembly hearing in January that left critics incensed. However, no critics of the project are among the seven speakers scheduled to testify Monday.
In a letter to the committee, Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability urged lawmakers to reconsider all funding for bullet trains. "There is not enough money available to put a functional financially sound high-speed train on what they are building,'' the group wrote.