High-Speed Rail

Valley waits for high-speed rail funds

California officials are cheering the state's $2.25 billion federal grant for high-speed rail, the largest award among $8 billion officially distributed by the Obama administration Thursday. But the state is still figuring out where and how to spend the money.

In the Valley, officials are nervously awaiting word on how much of the grant might make its way to the region, where two planned segments would connect Fresno to Bakersfield and Merced.

"We'll rally the Valley and speak with one voice to ensure as much funding as possible," said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

In its original application for $4.7 billion, the California High Speed Rail Authority sought earmarks for four segments, including more than a fourth of it for the Fresno routes. The award, while smaller, appeared to give the state flexibility to spread it among the routes, said authority Chairman Curt Pringle.

The grant allows the state "to put those funds where those projects are most readily available and ready to move forward," said Pringle, who promoted the grant in Southern California at an event with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At a Washington news conference, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said federal officials will discuss with the High Speed Rail Authority which part of the route comes first. She added: "Hopefully, that will come soon."

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the discussions with California rail officials will begin today.

He said a major criterion in dividing the funds will be "how quickly we can put people to work." He said he doesn't expect serious difficulties in making the funding decisions.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer added that she expects planning to begin immediately and groundbreaking is anticipated in 2011. "We're ready for this challenge," Boxer said.

Combined with a $9 billion voter-approved state bond, the federal grant will act as seed money for the Anaheim-to-San Francisco first phase, estimated to cost $42.6 billion. Officials are hoping to draw local and private investments -- and eventually lure a ton more federal money.

Richard Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California, said the state would be wise to pour most of the initial money into the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim segment.

"Maybe it is just a glorified commuter line, but it is something to prove the concept," he said, adding that the route has the potential to draw significant ridership.

Planning for that route, estimated to cost $4.8 billion, is further along than other segments and has drawn a $7 million investment from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

In the Valley, officials are making their own pitch, including offering land for a rail maintenance facility. The wide-open region is also the only stretch where trains can reach their maximum speeds of more than 200 mph. The cost for the two Fresno segments is estimated at $5.8 billion.

The other segment in play connects San Francisco to San Jose, costing about $5 billion. Planning efforts in the Bay Area have run into opposition from residents concerned about the rail bringing noise and dividing neighborhoods. The Palo Alto City Council on Monday set aside $88,000 to potentially battle the state over plans, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

In the Valley, the rail project has broader support, including from city and county leaders and the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce. Many of the supporters will likely stand next to the governor today when he promotes the federal grant during an expected visit to Fresno.

But there are rising concerns in the heartland, where the state is looking to buy farmland for the route.

Kole Upton, a grower who owns land in Merced County, said the state has approached him. But he said he has no interest in parting with the portion of land rail officials want.

"I want to farm," he said. "If I wanted to be next to a railroad track, I would have bought land next to a railroad track."