SACRAMENTO -- A 54-mile stretch of tracks in the central San Joaquin Valley has been approved as the first section to be built for California's proposed high-speed rail system.
On a 7-0 vote Thursday, members of the state's High-Speed Rail Authority board OK'd using $4.3 billion in federal and state money to begin building tracks from Borden, an obscure map point just north of the Fresno-Madera county line, through Fresno to Corcoran, in Kings County.
"This is a historic decision, one that we'll look back on years from now and say, 'Here is where it started,' " Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea said after the vote.
"For the Central Valley, it's the beginning of construction of this whole system ... and all the jobs that come with it."
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From its rural roots, the system would stretch north and west as more money becomes available, reaching from San Francisco to Los Angeles, spanning the Valley from Merced to Bakersfield, and carrying passengers at up to 220 mph.
Later phases would extend the system with branches to Sacramento and San Diego.
Thursday's vote came over the objections of dozens of people from Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties in the northern San Joaquin Valley who argued that connecting Merced to Fresno would make more sense.
"By not completing the Merced-to-Fresno segment, you're excluding the north Valley from connectivity to the system," Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs said.
"Our concern is that we will be left out for a long, long time."
Representatives from Kern County, in the meantime, asked the board to approve a 90-mile stretch between Fresno and Bakersfield.
Connecting two urban centers where stations are planned, both groups said, would provide more potential ridership for the system and offer greater employment opportunities to all Valley residents.
On Wednesday, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, fired off a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo over the Borden-to-Corcoran recommendation.
"It defies logic and common sense to have the train start and stop in remote areas that have little chance of attaining the ridership needed to justify the cost of the project," Cardoza wrote, calling for federal officials to intervene in what he called a "fundamentally flawed" recommendation.
Board members said their decision was based on engineering and funding limitations that largely limited their options.
"We are building a statewide system. We're in the business of connecting major metropolitan centers across our state, and we won't have a true high-speed rail system until we tie every part of this state together," said Tom Umberg of Orange County, the authority's vice chairman. "It's not one town or one region versus another; it's about connecting one region to another."
Rail officials added that no high-speed trains are planned to carry passengers on any portion of the system until it can be extended to San Francisco or Los Angeles.
But not even the first 54 miles can be built until the money is secured and a lengthy environmental-review process completed.
The authority has until the end of this month to finalize a grant contract with the Federal Railroad Administration on how the state will use nearly $3 billion in stimulus and railroad funds from the federal government. That money will be matched with funds from Proposition 1A, a high-speed-rail bond approved by California voters in 2008.
Hans Van Winkle, a retired general with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who is the authority's project manager, said the environmental certification is expected to be completed in mid-2011.
After that, the authority will seek bids for the construction work, which must commence by September 2012 -- a deadline included with the federal stimulus funds.
Van Winkle said the available money simply isn't enough to build a complete station-to-station section from either Merced to Fresno or Fresno to Bakersfield, forcing engineers to settle instead on a hybrid alternative that straddles Fresno and still enables the tracks to be linked with existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail lines.
Because current Amtrak service uses the BNSF rails, tying into those tracks would allow Amtrak's San Joaquin passenger trains to use the new line if, in a worst-case scenario, no future segments are ever built for the high-speed trains -- another of the federal stimulus requirements.
Valley rivalries emerge
The competition among the north, central and southern areas of the Valley is intensified because of chronically high unemployment in the region; building the high-speed rail line is expected to create tens of thousands of construction jobs over the coming years.
Throughout the region, nine sites are vying for the authority's eventual approval as the location for a heavy maintenance facility to service the locomotives and cars -- a project that could bring as many as 1,500 permanent jobs and serve as a catalyst for economic development associated with the train system.
The primary contenders include the former Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, a site at the south edge of Fresno for which the county has agreed to put up $25 million for purchase and development, and land near Shafter that would be donated by a Kern County farming company.
Authority board member Rod Diridon of San Jose tried to salve the wounds to interests in Merced and Bakersfield by offering a three-pronged suggestion:
- Allocate $2 million for environmental studies for stations in Merced and Bakersfield.
"Those conditions are low-cost, or no-cost, guarantees to the people in Merced and Bakersfield that we're heading in their direction and we're going to get there," Diridon said. "It tells those communities that all their support has not been for nothing."
But because Diridon's proposed peace offering was not included on Thursday's agenda, the board could not even consider the issue. Diridon expects to pitch the idea formally at the board's January meeting.
Cardoza's colleague in Congress, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno -- whose district includes the Borden-to-Corcoran segment -- praised Thursday's vote.
"Just as the interstate highway is longer than its first stretch of road, California's high-speed rail system will be greater than this initial segment," Costa said. But, he added, "the authority must look for ways to lower costs and extend the line as soon as possible."