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High-speed rail advocates say delays will add to cost

(The following article by Jennifer M. Fitzenberger was posted on the Modesto Bee website on May 10.)

SACRAMENTO -- The price of California's proposed high-speed rail system could skyrocket if a $9.95 billion bond measure on the November ballot is pushed to 2008.

Expensive environmental studies could have to be redone, and construction costs no doubt would increase, said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Most rail proponents agree the bond should be postponed -- given that the state is billions of dollars in debt -- but they disagree about to which year it should be moved. Bond money would help pay for the first leg of the $33 billion, 700-mile system linking the state's major cities.

Some say the bond should go before voters in 2006. The economy likely will bounce back by then, and a two-year delay won't slow the project, they say. Others are more skeptical, saying voters likely won't approve the measure until 2008.

Time to recover

Gov. Schwarzenegger supports moving the bond to the 2008 ballot. That measure

AB 2865 by state Assemblyman Russ Bogh, is scheduled to be heard this week in a legislative funding committee.

Postponing the bond for four years would allow more time for the state to recover financially and for planners to finish environmental studies and provide more financial information to the governor and Legislature, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

"It will give us an opportunity, once we get back to a more stable budget environment, to evaluate this program in the context of the state's other needs," Palmer said.

Bogh, a Cherry Valley Republican, said voters won't support the bond this year or in 2006, so bumping it a couple more years will help, not hurt, the project.

"If the governor comes out and opposes it in 2006, it's not going to pass," Bogh said. "The state can't afford this, and the people who have to pay the bills, the voters, know it."

Bogh also said environmental studies would not necessarily have to be redone.

But former state Sen. Jim Costa of Fresno, whose legislation put the bond on the ballot, said waiting until 2008 could result in pricey consequences. He doesn't want to have to redo work already finished and is confident the state's finances will shape up by 2006.

"The further you delay it, the more expensive it gets," said Costa, a Democrat who is running for Congress.

SB 1169 by Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, would postpone the bond until 2006. It sailed through committees and awaits full Senate approval.

New environmental studies?

Morshed said waiting until 2006 would not significantly affect the project. He said he cannot say with certainty how a 2008 bond date would affect it.

If money for the project comes from another source -- say, the state budget -- moving the bond to 2008 would have no impact, he said.

But costs could substantially increase if rail planners have to redo environmental work -- if houses or businesses sprout along the future rail line -- and there is no alternative funding.

"Our environmental document is based on existing conditions," Morshed said. "Between now and then, how much that is going to change depends on what the rest of the people in California do."

Construction costs will continue to rise, said Morshed, adding that a two-year project delay could increase the cost by $4 billion.

"If you delay long enough, the price goes up and people lose interest," Morshed said. "A question in everybody's mind is 'What would happen?' Everyone has their own speculation."

Monday, May 10, 2004

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