Backing off claims that the bullet train would create more than 1 million jobs, California's high-speed rail leaders acknowledged Thursday that their "short-handed" definition used to describe jobs has been "imprecise and potentially confusing."

In a statement responding to an investigation by this newspaper, the California High-Speed Rail Authority clarified that the 1 million jobs figure does not refer to the number of workers. Instead, as the newspaper reported, it refers to an economic term known as "job-years" in which, for example, one person working 10 years equals 10 job-years.

While the lower-than-advertised job figures would result in about 20,000 construction workers during a typical year, the project's die-hard supporters such as Gov. Jerry Brown said the differences didn't change their fervor to start building.

Project officials vowed Thursday to make it clear that far fewer people will get jobs than they previously implied, saying now that the project will create "thousands and thousands" of jobs.

"But it is important to emphasize that the case for high-speed rail does not revolve around jobs," project board member Michael Rossi, the governor's jobs czar, said in the statement. "It is clear to Californians that something must be done to keep our state moving over the next generation."

From Sacramento to Washington, political leaders have argued the railroad's employment benefits are so overwhelming that this is the perfect time to embark on the most expensive project for any state in U.S. history. They are urging the Legislature to approve the $6 billion first leg of construction in the Central Valley next year, hoping to find the rest of the funding along the way.

Rail officials also had used "job-years" to add up the number of "spinoff" jobs they expect outside companies, such as restaurants and retailers, to create to support the project. In reality, they estimate about 40,000 actual workers -- or two-thirds of the project's total jobs -- will be employed in spinoff jobs in a typical year, even in secluded areas like Central Valley farmlands.

A spokesman for Brown did not address the jobs claims but in a two-sentence statement called the newspaper report "hyperbolic" and said it "attempted to create an inaccurate impression."

"High-speed rail will be a major, much-needed boost for California's economy," the statement said.
Union head Jim Earp of the California Alliance for Jobs also blasted the newspaper's investigation, adding that the project would give paychecks to "thousands" of out-of-work laborers.

Rossi and the rail authority emphasized that while job creation was important, more importantly, the project will "address the long-term mobility needs of a quickly growing population."

The rail authority recently ended a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign funded by state taxpayer funds in which they commonly referred to the total employment figures as "jobs," or "people" who would get work. Lance Simmens, the rail authority's communications chief, said Thursday that if the rail authority uses the 1 million figure again, it would make clear that it is only estimating years of employment.

"I'm sure we'll do what we think is in the best interest of being clear and transparent," Simmens said, adding the authority would also separate construction and spinoff jobs "when it's called for."

"That's the right way to do it; it's less misleading," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the business forecasting center at University of the Pacific. "It's important to look at this skeptically (so this doesn't) become the standard way people evaluate projects, because it's deceptive."

Rail opponents say the rail authority's integrity already was on the line, as it has changed several key figures about the project since voters approved the bullet train in 2008. For instance, officials tripled the project's cost, pushed back the start of full service 14 years, downsized rider expectations and increased the anticipated cost to ride.

"I used to be a fervent supporter, but now it just really looks ludicrous," said Portola Valley resident Geoff Baldwin. He said the latest on jobs claims "was kind of the last straw, actually."