Officials with the state's High Speed Rail Authority say it's now or never for the plan to build a bullet train from San Francisco to LA.
That's in response to an internal watchdog group's report, issued Tuesday, which recommended holding off on the project until more funding can be secured.
If construction on the bullet train doesn't begin by October 2012, the state will have to forfeit $4 billion in stimulus money.
That, in turn, would trigger a clause that prohibits the state from spending bond money on the plan, says Tom Umberg, Chair of the High Speed Rail Authority. He says it would effectively “kill” high-speed rail in California.
"The project will be basically done for many, many years," says Umberg. "And [it] may be impossible to build."
California has enough money to build the initial 130 miles of track, between Chowchilla and Bakersfield, in the Central Valley. Once that money is spent, the state will have to ask for more federal support, as well as private investment, to complete the full, 520-mile line from SF to LA.
The initial segment has been derided by opponents as a “rail to nowhere,” but supporters of the plan call it a critical backbone that can serve as a testing ground for the technology.
This week's report from the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group is the latest setback to the project. In July, the peer review panel criticized the rail authority's ridership and revenue projections as unrealistic. California's Legislative Analyst's Office has also issued reports skeptical of the high-speed rail plan.
Last year, Republicans in Congress killed President Obama’s proposal to include high-speed rail funding in the FY2012 budget, and the project is in danger of becoming ensnared in election-year politics. But rail officials in California say they won’t ask for additional money until 2014, at which point they hope to have more support in Washington.
In Tuesday's peer-review report, a panel of transportation experts said it's too risky to break ground on the initial segment without a committed source of funding for the complete, $100 billion dollar project.
Umberg believes that's unrealistic.
"If the same standard were applied to other projects in California, we wouldn’t have the Golden Gate Bridge. We would not have the California Aqueduct. We would not have the various campuses of the University of California. We would not have the I-5."
Tuesday’s report from the California high-Speed Rail Peer Review Group rejected such comparisons, arguing that, while they made sense from a “phasing perspective,” they ignored the fact that those projects had dedicated funding sources, such as a gas tax or airport tax.
Governor Jerry Brown's new budget includes plans to continue spending on high-speed rail.
State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Richvale says he plans to introduce a bill that would send the high speed rail plan back to California voters. Last month, a Field Poll found voters would would reject the $9 billion bond package by a wide margin.