Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Another blow to California's high speed rail project

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California's high speed rail line has hit another speed bump.

The federal Surface Transportation Board has turned down a request from the California High-Speed Rail Authority for conditional approval of the 114-mile Bakersfield-to-Fresno portion of the route before completion of a final environmental report.

That environmental review is expected to be completed by the spring, but the Rail Authority says it's under a tight deadline: if contractors can't start work on the portion of the project south of Fresno by July of next year, the agency would have to rebid the project in two parts. That would create what the rail agency described in its application as a "substantial aggregate increase" in the cost of the project.

The rail agency also suggested that if the Surface Transportation Board doesn't act now, there may be another delay in the works because the board may have a vacancy as of the first of the year.

The three-member Surface Transportation Board said while it "sometimes" has made conditional approvals in the past, it has not done so in several years. The board ruled the Rail Authority hasn't given any "unique or compelling" arguments for conditional approval.

Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Turlock, a long time critic of the high speed rail project, calls the ruling "another major blow in a series of setbacks to the California project."

Denham points out the decision follows a California court ruling last week that requires both an environmental review and a funding plan before issuing state bonds. 

The California High Speed Rail Authority had no immediate comment.

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