Critics pan proposed high-speed rail segment

Critics pan proposed high-speed rail segment
This concept drawing shows California's proposed bullet train moving through the Central Valley. (Rendering from the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Newlands & Company Inc.)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Supporters and critics of California's planned 800-mile high-speed rail line are at odds over a proposal to build the first segment of the system between two small towns in the Central Valley.

As high-speed rail officials prepare to meet Thursday to consider a recommendation to run the initial 65-mile route from the farmlands of Borden through Fresno to Corcoran, critics are already panning the proposal as the "train to nowhere."

One Democratic congressman from the region who had been supportive of the bullet train project is threatening to pull the brake.

"If they proceed along this path, they'll have a very strenuous opposition from me," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, whose district includes counties north of the proposed route, said Wednesday. "We'll look at every crack and crevice in how they can justify this proposal that ... was done in a secretive and deceptive way."

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is under a tight deadline to pick a route and enter a funding agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration by the end of the year.

Last week, rail authority engineers recommended the route in response to a Federal Railroad Administration directive that federal funding must go toward a stretch of track in the Central Valley.

Federal officials said last month they wanted the $4.3 billion to go toward a project that can be completed and operational by 2017. Some officials say that goal can most likely be achieved in California's agricultural core, where costs are lower, community opposition is weaker, and fewer delays are anticipated.

Cardoza said the money will be well spent in the Central Valley, where the flat terrain will allow high-speed trains to zoom at 220 mph. He criticized the authority for picking a route that doesn't link Fresno to either Merced, 50 miles to the north, or Bakersfield, 100 miles south, as considered in environmental studies and discussed in numerous public meetings.

Instead, the recommended route doesn't connect those population centers. One end stops in Borden, which was derided in an editorial in the Merced Sun-Star as a "mythical 'town'" that "Gertrude Stein wouldn't even have acknowledged." The San Jose Mercury News described the other end of the route, Corcoran, as "perhaps best known for the state prison where Charles Manson is locked up."

"It defies logic and common sense to have the train start and stop in remote areas that have no hope of attaining the ridership needed to justify the cost of the project," Cardoza wrote in a letter Tuesday to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

He asserted the proposed route violates federal and state requirements that a segment must be useable whether or not the full system gets completed, and he demanded an investigation.

He insisted he wasn't raising ire because the proposed route doesn't reach Merced in his district. He said he was more upset that the authority decided to announce its selection on the day before Thanksgiving, when few people were paying attention.

"For them to pick this hybrid route at the 11th hour and 55th minute before the holiday is misleading to the public and highly offensive," Cardoza said.

Authority deputy director Jeff Barker contended the route will meet state and federal requirements because the two end points will connect to a rail line currently being shared by Amtrak passenger trains and freight trains.

"By tying into there, we'll allow Amtrak to run on that line, which will reduce travel time, improve service and capacity," Barker said. "It'll be a benefit to them, but that's our worst case scenario. Our plan is not to end there."

Authority CEO Roelof van Ark wrote in an editorial Wednesday that picking the first segment of the estimated $43 billion system "is an engineering and project-management decision, not a political one."

He said starting construction on the recommended route will help California attract more federal funding and private investment to complete the entire system, ultimately linking Sacramento to San Diego and urban centers in between. He has called the first segment the backbone of the system.

"Our task at hand is not to build stretches of rail track," he wrote. "Our task at hand is to build a statewide system."

State officials originally wanted the first segment to be built between Los Angeles and Anaheim in Orange County, but that project has been slowed by right-of-way issues raised by cities along the proposed corridor.

To the north, a coalition of cities and nonprofit groups near San Francisco has threatened to halt the project in court. It claims environmental studies inflated ridership figures for the proposed train and that the studies did not meet state requirements.