No final decision has been made, but high-speed rail planners are increasingly focused on Southern California as the most financially promising place to build the project's first operational segment.
In what could become a political win for the southern portion of the state, project officials say ridership and revenue projections clearly favor connecting the Los Angeles Basin's larger population base to initial construction proposed in the Central Valley. Tracks to the Bay Area would follow at least several years later under that scenario.
Recent discussions with transit agencies in the north and south could soften the impact of any decision on where the system would operate first. Project officials say they are looking at connecting as soon as possible with L.A.'s Metrolink and the Bay Area's Caltrain. Observers say these improvements could be made simultaneously.
But as the rail authority puts final touches on a revised business plan that could determine the project's fate in the state Legislature this spring, Chairman Dan Richard confirmed that planners are giving "more attention" to starting service between Merced and the San Fernando Valley rather than between Bakersfield and San Jose.
Richard denied having a preference for one option or the other; neutrality on this point has been the rail authority's policy. He also emphasized that a final board decision could be years away, and that both options will continue to be investigated in case of unforeseen obstacles.
Even so, he said in an interview earlier this month that he and other board members cannot ignore recent estimates suggesting Southern California has more potential for delivering early operational profits.
"We will be guided to a great extent by the (ridership and revenue) numbers," he said.
Which way they go could have big implications for the project's financing. Officials expect an outside operator and other private investors will decide whether to invest $11 billion or more into the system based on how well the initial operating segment performs financially in the first few years after its projected 2022 opening date.
The full system, with trains running between Anaheim and San Francisco at up to 220 mph, would not operate until 2033 at the earliest, according to a November business plan draft. People involved say that plan is undergoing substantial revisions that could shorten the timetable and lower its $98 billion pricetag.
The November draft plan estimates that the southern option could cost a little more than the northern option, depending on which end of the price range is used. But it predicted that the southern option would attract about a fifth more passengers.
The politics of such a decision are less straightforward. Jobs and investment will come sooner to the region that lands the initial operating segment.
Constituencies in the south point to the benefits of closing a passenger rail gap between Bakersfield and points south. Meanwhile, groups in the north contend that the project would do well to link as soon as possible to Silicon Valley jobs and the area's international airport.
The Kern Council of Governments has long supported the southern option because it would bridge downtown Bakersfield's Amtrak station and Palmdale's Metrolink station.
"Connecting those two with rail service would complete a gap in the existing rail system and greatly improve ridership," said Rob Ball, Kern COG's interim executive director. "Because there's no longer this disincentive for riders that may be less inclined to ride a bus or do a transfer...from rail to bus then back to rail again."
Chairman Richard said L.A. officials seem more anxious to get the first link than their counterparts in the Bay Area.
"I do hear from transportation leaders in Los Angeles that this is an important decision for them, and that there is a sense that they would like to see the (southern option) take precedent," the chairman said. "I haven't heard ... those explicit conversations with transportation people in the north."
A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which offered the project federal funding on the condition that construction begin in the Central Valley, said the agency will make no such stipulations about where the system should operate initially. Spokesman Mike Murray said that will be up to the rail authority board.
For its part, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group wants to see the northern section built before the southern route, even as it has taken no official position either way, said Jessica Zenk, senior director of transportation for the trade group.
"This is the hub for the innovation economy, the jobs that folks in the Central Valley want to be connected with. They're here," Zenk said. She added that the northern route would connect with Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport much more directly than the southern option would link to Los Angeles International Airport.
But State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, co-chairman of the Select Committee on High-Speed Rail, said it's more important to close the rail gap between Bakersfield and L.A. as a way of demonstrating the viability of bullet train service as an alternative to driving or flying. He said the rail authority should consider doing this even before linking Bakersfield and Fresno.
"The object was not to connect the Central Valley to the Central Valley but to connect the Central Valley to the urban areas," he said.
At the same time, Lowenthal voiced support for the "blended" approach receiving greater attention lately. That option would cut costs by hooking up high-speed trains through the Central Valley with conventional commuter rail in the north and south. It could also spread out costs among different transit agencies.
This hybrid option has been advocated by the independent group Californians for High Speed Rail, which has taken no position on the northern versus southern options. Executive Director Daniel Krause said the group would like to see a blended system linking the Central Valley to Palmdale while at the same time tying into a commuter rail station in Gilroy that connects to San Francisco.
Such a compromise would curtail the northern and southern options described in the rail authority's November business plan. Krause said construction could later continue either direction as more money becomes available.
"That would be ideal, where they kind of pursue north or south (initial operating segments) in a modified form," he said.
The rail authority board's vice chairman, Tom Richards, said some of these questions will be clarified in the revised business plan coming out within weeks.
But at an intuitive level, he said, the southern option may make more sense because it closes the Bakersfield-L.A. gap.
Considering that this option would open the system to the state's largest population center, "you say, 'Wow -- that certainly deserves attention,'" he said.