Board OKs 1st section of California's high-speed rail line

Computer-generated image of a potential California high-speed train
Computer-generated image of a potential California high-speed train
California High-Speed Rail Authority

Seven members of the California High Speed Rail Authority voted unanimously today to spend $4.3 billion to lay 65 miles of track between a small town north of Fresno to Corcoran.

This would be the first segment of the state's high-speed rail line in the Central Valley.

The vote follows a presentation by staff engineers, who explained that 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. The government requires that the rail line can be usable whether or not the full, 800-mile system gets completed.

Proponents on both sides of the high-speed rail debate discussed the the proposed San Joaquin Valley high-speed rail line Wednesday's "AirTalk" with Larry Mantle. Critics compared the proposed line to Alaska’s famed “bridge to nowhere.”

The proposed line would run about 65 miles from Madera to Corcoran via downtown Fresno. Proponents say it would lay the groundwork for more expansion towards major metropolitan centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“It brings flexibility to build north or south,” said Steve Geil, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation serving Fresno County.

However, critics argue that the line is risky, since further expansion is dependent on variables like additional federal funding and the ability to attract private investors to buy state bonds.

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters said that there was no guarantee the line would ever connect to anything, downplaying the High Speed Rail Authority’s (HSRA) ridership estimates as “inflated”.

“They think that laying track will be a moral commitment to finish,” Walters said. “Building incrementally puts us into a commitment stage which I think is very dangerous.”

In 2008, California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail network, which would eventually connect the state’s major cities. While the original plan was to start with two lines – Los Angeles to Anaheim and San Francisco to San Jose – a federal mandate issued a month ago states that all federal money given towards the project so far must be used in the San Joaquin Valley, between Merced and Bakersfield.

That money amounts to about $4.3 billion, with the proposed project's estimated cost coming to $4.15 billion. An HSRA press release says that the remaining funds will be used to connect the line with other, existing lines.

“Its really about the finish line, not the first hundred yards or the first mile,” said state Senator Dean Florez, echoing a similar statement by the HSRA.

Florez said that the line between Merced and Corcoran would be the cheapest and easiest option to build, with the least environmental impact.

When asked if there was a risk that the line could become an “island of track” in the middle of the state should the project go bust, Florez said this type of criticism was cynicism that has long surrounded high-speed rail in California.

Expansion of high-speed rail lines across the state would depend on continued federal support, but that support seems to be in question.

In an interview with The Associated Press last month, the Republican lawmaker in line to head the House Transportation Committee, Representative John Mica from Florida, expressed skepticism about the high-speed rail networks being supported throughout the country by the Obama administration.

Mica said that while he supports high-speed rail generally, he wants to re-examine some current projects, which may include California’s. Mica wants to refocus on areas where he believes high-speed rail could be successful, such as in the Northeast, because of its high population density.

KPCC Wire Services contributed to this report.