SACRAMENTO -- The state's High-Speed Rail Authority has nearly doubled the size of its staff in the past six months and expects the first phase of construction to be "under contract and under way this summer," the agency's CEO told lawmakers Monday.
CEO Jeff Morales testified before the Assembly Transportation Committee in what its chairwoman called "the next chapter of legislative oversight" after debates last summer that culminated in the decision to appropriate the first $8 billion for what would be the nation's first high-speed rail system.
"Getting to that point was no easy feat," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach. "That vote was a turning point. Until then, it was appropriate to debate the merits of the project. Now it's time to move forward without regrets."
Despite that admonition from the committee chairwoman, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, challenged Morales about what he suggested were overstated claims about the number of jobs the project will create, the lack of private investment and the wisdom of proceeding when the prospect of additional federal funding appears dim.
"Why are we not giving the voters an opportunity to review this again?" he said.
Before Morales could respond, Lowenthal intervened. "The Legislature did take a stand," she said.
Morales said last year's legislation, which targeted $1.1 billion for rail improvements in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, represented "a very significant shift in approach to the program. What was being designed as a stand-alone system almost moved to a statewide rail modernization program."
The planned improvements in the urban rail systems, which will include the electrification of tracks used by Amtrak's CalTrain in the Bay Area, will provide near-term benefits to commuters and ultimately allow high-speed rail to be "incorporated into the state's transportation network," he said.
In the meantime, the first phase of construction of high-speed rail will take place along a 114-mile corridor in the Central Valley, far from either of the state's major population centers, in a stretch that runs roughly from Fresno to Bakersfield.
The project to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco with a rail system that would feature 200 mph trains and complete the journey in less than three hours is projected to cost $68 billion.
The initial money comes from $3.5 billion in federal funds that was targeted to be spent in the economically depressed Central Valley and the first installment of a $10 billion high-speed rail bond approved by voters in 2008. There are no other identified sources of funding.
Acknowledging the uncertainty of future funding, Morales said the agency will not start work on any segment until it has the money to complete it and will ensure that each segment has what he called "independent value."
The initial segment, for instance, could if necessary be used to improve traditional rail service in the Central Valley along what he said is among the most heavily used Amtrak corridors in the nation.
Morales said he hopes the project will attract private sector investment, which he said experience from other countries shows typically follows an initial public investment, at a time when trains are about to begin operating.
He said discussions with private investors are ongoing and that the agency expects to issue a formal request for expressions of interest this year.
"They are ready to step in at the appropriate time," he said of private investors.
The agency has hired 55 employees since lawmakers approved Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to move forward with the project in July, including a chief program manager who was recruited from a top position with Amtrak.
Morales said the High-Speed Rail Authority will contract with CalTrans and other state agencies to provide a variety of services, including the relocation of a segment of Highway 99 that will be needed to accommodate the first phase of the system.
"Our job is to build the program, not build up a state agency," he said.
Two Senate committees are scheduled to conduct an oversight hearing today that will include an examination of how the agency has responded to recommendations in an audit of its operations conducted by the State Auditor's Office. ___