LOS ANGELES (AP) — Officials on Thursday approved a $4.3 billion proposal to build California's first segment of high-speed rail line that would run through the state's agricultural heart.
The seven members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority voted unanimously to approve staff engineers' recommendation after hearing dozens of public comments from people who questioned the viability of the 65-mile route in the Central Valley.
"We're not recommending to build an operable section, we're not looking to put trains on this particular piece," board member Fran Florez said. "This is just the beginning. It's not going to please everyone, but hopefully we'll get a lot of support for the benefit of the project in the future."
Critics were upset the route, will not reach major population centers of Merced or Bakersfield. It would start from the tiny town of Borden, connect to a new station in downtown Fresno and another one east of Hanford, then end in Corcoran, another small town.
Engineers explained the route was the best choice of three studied, given the limited funding and a federal requirement that the segment be useable whether or not the entire 800-mile system is built.
They said the route will allow the track to connect to an existing freight rail line used by Amtrak.
The 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 month, federal officials said they wanted the money to go toward a project that can be completed and operational by 2017.
Supporters believe the Central Valley is the most suitable location to begin construction of the line, enabling the system to extend north to San Francisco and Sacramento and south to Los Angeles and San Diego. The region's flat terrain will allow bullet trains to reach top speeds of 220 mph.
"With additional investment, this initial segment will demonstrate the speed, convenience and economic development potential of high-speed train travel," the FRA said in a statement. "The Department is committed to a long-term partnership with California to make the state's plan for high-speed rail a reality."
The authority said the money will be spent on purchasing rights of way, realigning roadways, relocating existing railways and utilities, and building the two stations, viaducts and rail bridges. Constructing the initial segment is expected to create more than 80,000 jobs.
The authority's hasty announcement of the recommended route last week surprised many who thought the first set of track would link Fresno to either Merced, 50 miles to the north, or Bakersfield, 100 miles south, as it was considered in environmental studies and discussed in public meetings.
The sudden mention of Borden and Corcoran prompted critics to dub the project the "train to nowhere."
A Democratic congressman from the region asserted the proposal violates a $10 billion state bond measure that requires any high-speed rail segment built must be "useable."
"The process used to come to this decision was deceptive and suspect at best, and may be violative of the law at worst," Rep. Dennis Cardoza said. "This is not a good day for California or this project."
At the board meeting held in Sacramento, an authority attorney said he couldn't say whether the segment adhered to the state law because he didn't work on the staff proposal. But he said the route will be a section of a useable segment.
Project manager Hans Van Winkle said it also meets the requirement because the route can be used by an Amtrak service between Bakersfield and Sacramento that currently shares track with freight trains. The new route will allow Amtrak to shave off travel time.
"That's a fallback scenario that no one anticipates, but it's a secure safeguard put in place by the federal government if no further funds will be made available," Van Winkle said. "The authority is confident that further federal funding is coming."
The decision disappointed officials from Merced County, who were counting on construction in the county of 245,000 with high foreclosure and unemployment rates.
"Our concern is that by not completing the Merced-to-Fresno link, we'll be left out for a long, long time," Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs said.
A former state assemblyman, however, said the project will bring jobs throughout the region. He was insulted by those who called the Central Valley "nowhere."
"'Nowhere' will never share the prosperity of the state until you do something about its relative isolation," Rusty Areias said. "It's a place that can no longer depend on agriculture; you have to do something about the relative isolation of the Central Valley."
To show the authority's commitment to expanding the route, board member Rod Diridon proposed dedicating $2 million each for final environmental, engineering and design studies for high-speed rail stations in Merced and Bakersfield. The suggestion will be taken up at the next meeting.