California High-Speed Rail Authority planners want to see a $616 million windfall -- once destined for Ohio and Wisconsin -- used to extend the initial track construction south from Corcoran.
But they won't know until late next year just how far the extra track will go, according to a report released late Thursday. It will depend on which of several route options between Corcoran and Bakersfield is least disruptive to the environment.
The authority's board will vote Monday in Sacramento on the proposal.
The new money comes from the Federal Railroad Administration. California will match it dollar for dollar with funds from Proposition 1A, a voter-approved bond measure from 2008. That will bring to $5.5 billion the total available for California to start construction of the project in 2012.
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Two weeks ago, the authority's board selected a 65-mile span between Borden, near Madera, and Corcoran in Kings County as its first stage of track-building. The proposed 800-mile system of high-speed trains would link California's major cities by 2020.
The latest grant represents more than half of the federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail that the Obama administration stripped from Ohio and Wisconsin after newly elected Republican governors in those states turned down the money.
But it's uncertain how much more track can be built for the money. That will depend on which option the authority selects, authority CEO Roelof van Ark said.
Six different options -- some much more expensive to build than others -- are going through environmental reviews. Those aren't expected to be done until fall.
Under the least-expensive combination, construction could be extended about 48 miles from north of Corcoran to Shafter, northwest of Bakersfield. The most costly alternative would extend tracks only a dozen or so extra miles; it's more expensive because of factors unique to that proposed stretch.
"There's a huge difference because of the environmental process," said Rachel Wall, the authority's press secretary. Some options involve elevating tracks through Corcoran or over sensitive wildlands like the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge.
Other alternatives call for additional miles of track to bypass communities but increase the potential effects on agriculture.
Planners are recommending going south, rather than north to Merced, because they don't know whether high-speed tracks north of Fresno should follow the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, near Highway 99, or the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, used now by Amtrak, a few miles east of the UP line.
Earlier this month, critics decried the Borden-to-Corcoran stretch as "a train from nowhere to nowhere."
But, van Ark said, construction has to start somewhere.
"The first step ... to select and then build the first segment of the line, is only the beginning of a continuous process," he said, "which should logically lead to the construction of the alignment and completion of the whole interconnected network."
If money runs out and no future sections are built, the high-speed line can be connected with existing tracks to provide dedicated rails for Amtrak's passenger service.