State high-speed rail officials said Wednesday they want the system to start as a 54-mile stretch running through Fresno.
It would be a rail line from nowhere to nowhere that would carry no passengers -- at least in the short term -- but staff members with the California High-Speed Rail Authority said the section makes the best use of the $4.3 billion in construction funds and also best meets state and federal legal requirements.
"We are building a statewide project, not a single piece of track," said Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy executive director. "This is just where we're starting."
In a Wednesday morning teleconference, Barker said the initial phase would be built north from near Corcoran in Kings County, skirting the eastern side of Hanford, where a station is tentatively planned near the junction of Highways 198 and 43.
That Hanford-area station, however, is "not 100% yet," said Carrie Bowen, the authority's Central Valley regional director. It still needs confirmation from the authority board and further environmental review.
The tracks will then head north to Fresno, where they will run on an elevated viaduct through the city and include a downtown station. The initial route's northern terminus will be near Borden, between Avenues 12 and 13 south of Madera.
Authority board members will be asked to approve the recommendation at a meeting next week.
A $715 million federal grant was key to Wednesday's announcement because it came with strings attached -- the money could only be used if the first portion of the system was built in the Central Valley.
The money was part of more than $902 million in the latest round of federal funds for the bullet trains, which would carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of up to 220 mph.
Earlier this year, the state rail authority received more than $2 billion in federal stimulus funds for the proposed line, and in August applied for more.
This money, plus matching funds from a high-speed rail bond approved by California voters in 2008, gave the authority the more than $4 billion to start construction on the system.
Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat and longtime high-speed rail supporter, called Wednesday's announcement "another step towards breaking ground on California's high-speed rail system. The authority must make its final decision, but our Valley is poised to benefit from the jobs and economic opportunity the project will create."
In recommending the initial routing, officials looked at pros and cons of other proposed routes. Those included starting south of Fresno and ending near Shafter in Kern County, and between Fresno and Merced.
But one factor loomed large in Wednesday's recommendation: strings attached to the $715 million grant. The federal government wanted tracks built that could be used even if the high-speed rail project is derailed.
If funding for the project dries up, Barker said, this initial stretch could be connected at the north and south ends to the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, which are used by Amtrak.
The passenger-rail system already runs through Fresno, but this would give it dedicated tracks.
Connecting to the BNSF would entail building about 11 additional miles of track, a possibility that is built into this initial budget.
That, however, is a "worst-case scenario," he said.
"We are not in the business of building a short piece of track," Barker said. "We are in the business of building L.A. to San Francisco."
What officials instead hope is that they can secure additional federal funds from states that may reject high-speed rail money so California can add to the initial stretch, building track either south toward Bakersfield or to the north.
The northern terminus in Madera County, they said, is near where the tracks would turn west and head to the San Francisco Bay Area.
This initial stretch, officials said, also offers the best location to build either north or south in subsequent construction stages.
Construction would start by September 2012, officials said, because that is a requirement for the federal stimulus funds.
By 2015, they hope to be doing tests on the track. There will be no passenger service on the initial high-speed rail stretch until other parts of the high-speed system are completed and connected to it, officials said.
The largest expense for the initial section is through Fresno, where long, elevated viaducts will carry the trains above ground level.
John Popoff, a member of the authority's program-management team, said the first real work people will see is the relocation of utilities and clearing of the right of way, as well as construction of the Fresno-area viaduct.
Rail officials said this initial investment should generate 80,000 temporary construction jobs -- and that's just for the first phase.
Wednesday's announcement, however, has no bearing on the location of a major maintenance facility to service the high-speed trains, said authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall.
Several Valley communities are vying for the yard, which could provide as many as 1,500 permanent jobs.
Last month, Fresno County officials approved using $25 million from Measure C, a half-cent transportation sales tax, to sweeten their bid for the state to build the maintenance yard near the rail route at the south edge of Fresno.
Wall said it doesn't make sense to build a facility now, because it would sit empty for a few years.
"Until we buy trains, its not a relevant discussion," she said.