Valley rail line could expand to Merced, Bakersfield

March 29, 2011 

Money from Florida could put Merced and Bakersfield on track to be included in construction of California's first section of high-speed rail.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, at a meeting today in Sacramento, is expected to apply to the Federal Railroad Administration for some of the $2.4 billion spurned last month by Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott.

Officials from Merced and Bakersfield complained long and loud about being left off the initial construction route when it was unveiled in late 2010. A successful application for more federal money could go a long way to soothe that disappointment and anxiety.

In a national competition for the funds, it's far from certain whether California's application will prevail. But just half of the Florida money -- combined with $540 million in state funds from Prop. 1A approved by voters in 2008 -- "could allow the Authority to complete the entire backbone of this statewide system from Merced to Bakersfield," said Rachel Wall, the authority's press secretary.

The current plans call for starting construction late next year on a 120-mile stretch of tracks from north of Fresno to the northeast fringe of Bakersfield, with a station in downtown Fresno. Extra money from Florida would extend that section by about 60 miles and add stations in downtown Merced and downtown Bakersfield.

"We're extremely pleased with this recommendation," said Lee Boese Jr., co-chairman of the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee. "We're almost frantic here because our unemployment is climbing. We need jobs."

"This is the tonic that the Obama administration has been promising," Boese added.

Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs said bringing the line into his city is a matter of providing a gateway to the entire North Valley.

"Our contention has always been that it really cuts out access to a significant number of potential riders" for tracks to fall short of Merced, Spriggs said.

California's application includes additional options if even more money is awarded: to either begin building a connecting line from the Chowchilla area west toward Pacheco Pass and San Jose, or building southeast from Bakersfield toward the Tehachapi Mountains and Palmdale.

If the authority board approves the application today, the question becomes: Will California get the money?

California is just one of several states competing for Florida's spoils. Its ultimate plans call for linking San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major urban centers with trains capable of hauling passengers at up to 220 mph on dedicated tracks that won't be shared with freight trains or slower passenger trains.

"What California has going for it is that it's the nation's only dedicated high-speed rail project that is under way," said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a project of the New York-based Regional Plan Association.

"It's seen by the federal government as a demonstration project, and that's why the [Obama] administration is eager to support its progress."

The Florida money -- a combination of federal stimulus funds and railroad grants -- originally was intended to build a high-speed train system between Tampa and Orlando.

After Scott killed that project, however, "the Obama administration lost its signature demonstration project," Todorovich said. "So now the pressure moves to California to have something to show, to complete segments of its project."

But, she added, other parts of the country may also be able to make a case for the Florida money, including the Northeast Corridor connecting Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.

"The Northeast is the busiest passenger rail corridor in the country," said Todorovich. "Given that the Northeast has not received a sizable chunk of funding yet, and some criticism in Congress over that, we may see some of this money go there instead."

California already has received more federal money than any other state for high-speed rail.

Nearly $3 billion in stimulus money has been committed to begin construction in the Valley. When state Prop. 1A bond funds are added in, the state has about $5.5 billion available to build the first segment.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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