Officials in Merced are left scratching their heads this week about the latest changes to the state’s high-speed rail plan, which delays the opening of Merced’s station to 2029.
The latest plans are to first build a 250-mile segment that would run from north of Bakersfield to San Jose, with the westward bend near Chowchilla. It would begin operating in 2025, three years later than the previous plan that called for trains to run from Merced to the San Fernando Valley by 2022. The route is also 50 miles shorter.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s Draft 2016 Business Plan, released last week, would make Merced’s stop operational in 2029.
Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan said city staffers are working to figure out what the changes mean for Merced. “We’re waiting for more information to come out from high-speed rail on our status,” he said Tuesday.
Carrigan noted that the business plan is updated every two years. He said the city’s planning process will continue as planned until further notice.
Backers said the new plan lets the state build an operating portion of the line without relying on additional money that might never come. Supporters hope construction will generate momentum and private investment to pay for the rest of the project south to the Los Angeles area.
We’re waiting for more information to come out from high-speed rail on our status.
Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan
The plans detailed last Thursday reflect the political realities that have confronted the project in the years since 2008, when voters approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail network linking Northern and Southern California. The last business plan, approved in 2014, called for the entire 520-mile system to be finished in 2028 at a cost of $68 billion.
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston, who has been a skeptic of rail plans, said local leaders need to question if the city’s planning should go forward if the Merced stop is pushed back. “It almost seems like a waste of money now,” he said. “It’s so far away. So much can change.”
City leaders who support the track have pointed to the rail stop in Merced as something that can spur economic growth and change the city for the better.
Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told The Associated Press the announcement is the first time officials are laying out a plan to build and operate a segment that does not rely on new money.
It almost seems like a waste of money now. It’s so far away. So much can change.
Merced Mayor Stan Thurston on high-speed rail planning in town
But the new plan also calls for state officials to ask the federal government for another $2.9 billion to extend high-speed tracks 20 miles south into Bakersfield and 50 miles north into San Francisco. Republicans who control Congress have not only been unwilling to offer further high-speed rail funding, they have sought repeatedly to repeal about $3 billion in federal stimulus funding allocated for the project by President Barack Obama’s administration.
The longer construction timeline was also reflected in lower revenue and ridership projections released Thursday. The business plan showed estimated ridership of 2.2 million to 4.1 million in 2025, which would be the first year of operation, compared with 7.4 million to 14 million projected in the 2014 plan.
For planning in Merced, the City Council picked engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, which has locations throughout the Bay Area and Southern California. The planning process and document are scheduled to be complete this year.
A “Visioning Workshop” meeting, which is the first of four to be held, is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Sam Pipes Room of City Hall, 678 W. 18th St.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.