California's controversial high-speed rail project received a boost Wednesday after the Federal Railroad Administration approved the proposed Merced-to-Fresno route, clearing the way for construction to begin in early 2013.
The decision signed Tuesday by FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo was the final bureaucratic hurdle for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The decision gives a federal blessing to the 60-mile route and to thousands of pages of environmental review for the project.
Backers of the project hailed the decision as "historic" for the development of the first high-speed train project in the U.S. and the start of construction in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The specter of lawsuits hangs over the project, however. Several suits have been filed against the state rail authority in hopes of stalling or stopping work on the Merced-Fresno section. The federal money comes with conditions that the Valley section of tracks be completed by September 2017 -- just five years from now.
The federal decision "is the most significant step," authority CEO Jeffrey Morales said Wednesday. "Work on this segment essentially begins today."
Morales said some of the first efforts will be acquiring land along the route needed for right of way. "Now we can go forward and sit down with specific property owners who are affected, work through a plan with them and ultimately offer them compensation in one way or another," he said.
The federal government's approval is needed for the California project because the Obama administration is putting up about $3.3 billion to start building a 120-mile stretch of high-speed track between Madera and Bakersfield, the first stages of a statewide system that would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the San Joaquin Valley. The Federal Railroad Administration is working with the state rail authority in the lengthy environmental review process.
The state rail authority approved the Merced-Fresno route in May. Federal officials had to run the plans through additional channels, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, for review before they could issue their decision.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea both described it as a "historic" step.
"The start of the Fresno-to-Merced segment will provide a much-needed economic boost for our area through the high-paying construction jobs that will be created," Swearengin said.
Perea said the project "is the game changer we have all been waiting for."
"Not only will it provide an incredible new form of transportation, but it will also put our residents back to work," Perea said.
Not everybody is as enthusiastic, though.
"I think it is an incredibly irresponsible decision by the FRA and the Obama administration to let this move forward with such huge holes in the analysis," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, which is suing the rail authority along with the Merced County Farm Bureau, the Madera County Board of Supervisors and other co-plaintiffs.
The suit focuses largely on claims that the rail authority's Merced-Fresno EIR did not adequately assess the effects on agriculture of building and operating the train system, nor does it provide sufficient measures to make up for those effects.
The Merced-Fresno section is the subject of at least two other lawsuits in Sacramento Superior Court, including one filed by the city of Chowchilla and another by owners of properties in the path of the tracks in Madera and Fresno counties.
Each suit alleges that the rail authority failed to fully address concerns raised in almost 33,000 pages of an environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno section of the line before approving the route in May. All three are asking for injunctions to prevent the authority from building the project.
The FRA's decision, Raudabaugh said, "only opens up the project to additional litigation" under federal law.
Morales, the authority's CEO, said he does not believe lawsuits will jeopardize the agency's ability to meet its 2017 completion deadline for the Valley section. "Litigation is always a risk because you never know how a judge might rule on any given issue," he said. "But we've taken all that into account in setting our schedule."
Five teams of contractors are working on bids for the first major stage of construction, from Madera to the south end of Fresno. Morales said those bids are due Dec. 2, and the authority could award a contract in early 2013.
Public comments are now being taken on a draft environmental impact report for the next section of the project, from Fresno to Bakersfield. The state authority's board could approve that report and make its final choice for a route in early 2013, followed by federal approval within a month or two.