California high-speed rail hits new bump in the road 

click to enlarge Warning: Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged Gov. Jerry Brown to make sure agency consolidation doesn’t affect rail funding. - AP FILE PHOTO
  • AP file photo
  • Warning: Sen. Dianne Feinstein urged Gov. Jerry Brown to make sure agency consolidation doesn’t affect rail funding.

Momentum is building among state and federal officials to dissolve the California High-Speed Rail Authority and roll it into a proposed state transportation agency.

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown suggested folding the authority — along with Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles — into a new department. He said consolidation of the agencies, an idea in his 2012-13 budget proposal, would save the state money.

In a letter to Brown made public Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the changes should take place immediately to ensure that federal funding for the project will not be lost.

“I encourage you to act swiftly to address the high-speed rail project’s problems, which I fear will put more than $3.5 billion in federal funding at risk if not addressed,” Feinstein wrote in Monday’s letter. “I am concerned that our state’s future would be greatly hindered if this project either failed to get off the ground, or failed to be completed.”

The $98 billion, 800-mile-long project to connect San Francisco and Sacramento with San Diego was approved by voters in a 2008 bond. The idea is to provide reliable and fast rail service between California’s major cities.

However, since voters approved the $9.95 billion bond, the project has progressed at anything but high speed. Conflicts over routes and funding questions have delayed plans all over the state.

But the agency now expects to break ground on the first segment of tracks in December. The authority will issue a request for proposals on the project in March.

Adding to the speed bumps, the High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, tasked with advising the state Legislature on the project, said it cannot recommend appropriating any bond money toward high-speed rail “absent a clearer picture of where future funding is going to come from.”

Brown’s proposal came shortly after the peer group released its findings.

Also Tuesday, state Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, introduced a bill seeking to kill all state-debt financing for the rail system, saying at a news conference that “voters bought a lemon” and “were misled” when they approved bonds for the project.

Thomas J. Umberg, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, said he is on board with the governor’s proposal to combine agencies.

“We embrace the reorganization proposal, as it provides the additional and the necessary resources to support the project,” Umberg said. “We are pleased to see the governor’s continued commitment to the state’s high-speed rail project.”

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