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Here's why Merced's mayor spoke with high-speed rail authority this week

Robert Campbell, transportation engineer, California High-Speed Rail Authority, stands near the Cedar Viaduct under construction near Hwy 99 in Fresno, Calif., on Monday, July 10, 2017.
Robert Campbell, transportation engineer, California High-Speed Rail Authority, stands near the Cedar Viaduct under construction near Hwy 99 in Fresno, Calif., on Monday, July 10, 2017. Bay Area News Group/TNS

With the shifting plans around the state's high-speed rail and its rising costs, Merced's mayor headed to Sacramento this week to speak with officials in an attempt reaffirm the bullet train's importance to the region.

Mayor Mike Murphy spoke to the California High-Speed Rail Authority on Tuesday, he said, advocating for Merced to remain in the initial plans for the train of about 520 miles, which is now estimated to cost $77.3 billion.

"It's in the city of Merced's best interest but it's in the state of California's best interest to have Merced included," he said Wednesday.

The rail agency's draft 2018 business plan from this month offered a look at a project that has been plagued with challenges and skepticism since before 2008, when the state's voters approved Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion high-speed-rail bond. The bonds are one source of money to help build what was envisioned as a system of electric trains traveling at up to 220 mph to connect the state's northern population centers in San Francisco and Sacramento with Los Angeles by way of the the San Joaquin Valley cities of Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield.

The plan says no funding source has been identified to pay for Merced's station, which is not any different from the last plan in 2016, but concerns about the train were serious enough that Murphy made the trip up north.

"It's not a huge departure from 2016 but we have to be vigilant and make sure that we stay top of mind so that Merced benefits as much as possible," he said.

Following the 2016 plan, Merced was removed from the initial phase for about two months before lawmakers put it back in, what many area leaders considered a victory.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, led the charge in 2016. Efforts to reach him on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Merced leaders have high hopes they can convince state leaders to put the train's heavy maintenance facility in Merced County, which has the potential for 1,500 jobs. But, without a stop, Merced has little hope for the facility.

The central and southern San Joaquin Valley planning has seen problems associated with right-of-way, contract negotiations, construction delays and other factors led earlier this year to a revised cost estimate of $10.6 billion for 119 miles of the route from north of Madera to north of Bakersfield. That's $2.8 billion more than had been forecast in the rail authority's 2016 business plan.

"A lot of bad things have happened, and this has been cumulative," Roy Hill, a consultant with the British firm WSP who is serving as the rail agency's chief program officer, said in January. "The worst-case scenario has happened."

Work continues both in the Valley and elsewhere in the state. By the end of the current 2017-18 fiscal year in June, the rail authority will have spent more than $5.4 billion statewide over the past 12 years, with the pace of expenditures rising exponentially since the first tangible construction work began in 2013-14 in Fresno and Madera counties.

More than $3.3 billion of that will have been for work in the Valley. The early spending since 2007 was for planning and environmental analysis between Merced and Bakersfield, a process that continues for some sections around Chowchilla and north of Bakersfield. Since 2014, the biggest expenditures have been for purchasing right-of-way property, which has taken far longer than the authority expected, and for a trio of construction contracts.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

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