State high-speed rail planners made Merced’s station official on Thursday, approving plans to send the train from the Bay Area to the Central Valley.
The latest plan for the $64 billion project was approved by the California High-Speed Rail Authority without opposition. After proposing to take Merced’s stop out of the initial operating plans, leaders added it back in with Thursday’s vote.
Area elected officials celebrated last week during a news conference announcing the new plans, but they weren’t official until Thursday’s vote.
“This is a great day for the city of Merced and Merced County,” Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan said Thursday.
The rail is a transportation investment for future generations, Carrigan said. “This isn’t for us. I think we lose sight of that,” he said.
Leaders from the authority have said they made a mistake in proposing to push Merced’s stop back to 2029. After some prodding from elected officials from the San Joaquin Valley, the authority said it corrected that mistake by pledging to open Merced’s stop on the same day as Fresno’s station in 2025.
Rail board Chairman Dan Richard stressed that high-speed rail officials heard the complaints of Madera and Merced officials who were outraged when they learned plans called for their cities to be cut out of the first phase of work.
“What came out was a really vital sense of how important this connection was for including those regions,” he said.
The plans detailed in February reflected the political realities, planners said, that have confronted the project in the years since 2008, when voters approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail network linking Northern and Southern California. The last business plan, approved in 2014, called for the entire 520-mile system to be finished in 2028 at a cost of $68 billion.
Rail officials have pitched the first segment between the Central Valley and San Jose for $21 billion as the only way to ensure a usable segment gets built with the existing funding available.
That’s where elected officials stepped in and told the authority it was not coming through on its promise to deliver the train to Merced and improve the economy of the Central Valley.
With some engineering changes and cost savings, such as making the Merced section a single rail rather than a double, the authority and elected officials came to a compromise to bring the train to the area, officials said.
California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales told the board last week that the state will spend $4 billion in Southern California to prepare for the bullet train, seeking to reassure worried officials that a recent change in plans calling for the train to head first to San Jose might mean the train never makes it to the Los Angeles area.
Richard added Thursday: “While San Jose may get trains first, you’re likely to see dollars first in Los Angeles County and in Anaheim.”
Leaders have said high-speed rail is just a portion of the plans related to transportation.
The authority is required by law to update its business plan every two years and proposals and funding projects for the system have frequently changed, leading to criticism that the latest proposal is no more likely to become reality than any of the others.
Gov. Jerry Brown has remained a supporter of the project, which he maintains will help cut carbon emissions.
*An earlier version of this story reported an errant step in the approval process. The plan requires no further votes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.