High-Speed Rail

State high-speed rail board OKs longer route

Racing to meet a federal deadline, state rail officials voted Monday to use an extra $616 million in funds taken from Ohio and Wisconsin to extend the initial construction of California's high-speed train system from Corcoran toward Bakersfield.

Just how far, however, depends on the cost of dealing with environmental effects for different route options being considered in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

In a special meeting in Sacramento, members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board approved a recommendation that could nearly double the miles of track to be built in the Valley starting in 2012.

Earlier this month, the authority's board chose a 65-mile span from near Borden, south of Madera, to Corcoran in Kings County, as the first piece to be built of what ultimately is planned as an 800-mile system linking California's major urban centers with trains moving at speeds up to 220 mph.

But after newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin rejected their states' shares of federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects -- about $1.2 billion in total -- the Federal Railroad Administration announced it was taking back the money and giving it to other states. More than half was awarded to California.

Rail Authority vice chairman Tom Umberg of Orange County described the latest infusion of cash as "an early Christmas present" to California from Ohio and Wisconsin.

California will match the newest award dollar-for-dollar with funds from Proposition 1A, a state bond measure approved by voters in 2008. It brings the total available for the initial high-speed rail construction to about $5.5 billion in federal and state funds.

To formally claim the funds -- which bring the total federal commitment for California's high-speed plans to nearly $3.6 billion -- the authority must meet a Dec. 31 deadline to finalize an agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration specifying where and how the money will be spent. The federal agency already has told the state it must use the funds to begin construction in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The Federal Railroad Administration funds could increase the miles of track being built starting in 2012 from the original 65-mile plan to as much as 123 miles, spanning from south of Madera to the fringe of Bakersfield, authority CEO Roelof van Ark said.

But how much more track can be built won't be determined until next fall, after environmental studies are completed on different route options between Corcoran and Bakersfield, van Ark added.

Among the variables are whether tracks should run through the communities of Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter or bypass them, and how much of the tracks will need to be built on elevated structures to avoid or reduce environmental effects on communities, farmland, wildlife habitat or historic areas.

Under the least-expensive combination, officials say, the money could take the tracks past Shafter to the northwest edge of Bakersfield. The most expensive extreme, however, would advance the tracks only a dozen or so miles beyond Corcoran.

The route between Borden and Bakersfield was chosen as the first high-speed rail section because it can easily be connected at each end to existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight tracks now shared by Amtrak passenger trains. That is something required by the federal government in case money runs out and no future sections are built. Amtrak trains could be switched over to the dedicated high-speed track to improve service and avoid conflicts with freight trains with which they now share rails.

In addition to extending tracks south from Corcoran, about $500,000 is being allocated to design future high-speed train stations in Merced and Bakersfield, van Ark said.

Van Ark added that California is negotiating with the federal government for another $4.5 million to help cities such as Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield, Gilroy and San Jose plan for the areas surrounding proposed stations.

The authority's goal is to have the 520-mile first phase of its system, linking San Francisco with Los Angeles and Anaheim, operational by 2020. Later extensions would add service to Sacramento and San Diego. The total cost to build over the next decade is estimated at $43 billion.

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