The California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously Thursday to approve the 54-mile-long Fresno-to-Corcoran route -- dubbed by some the "high-speed train to nowhere" -- as the first piece to be built for the state's newest rail system.
Board members of the authority met in Sacramento and voted 7-0, with two members absent, to use nearly $4.3 billion in federal and state money to begin construction on the track just north of the Fresno-Madera county line, through Fresno and on to just north of Corcoran. The plans call for elevated viaducts that would eventually carry trains above the streets of Fresno to minimize congestion and disruption in the city.
The proposed train system, which could eventually span 800 miles, is intended to carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles, by way of the San Joaquin Valley, at speeds of up to 220 mph. Because of strings attached to nearly $3 billion in federal stimulus funds, the state has to begin construction somewhere in the Valley and build northward and southward from there as more money becomes available.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, said in a telephone interview she was pleased to see an investment in the Central Valley that will create 83,00 jobs.
"This is 83,000 jobs that exceeds the entire population of the city of Merced," she said. "Anyone who's presently a member of one of the labor unions or in the construction field can look forward to being fully employed."
Board members chose from three separate plans: Fresno-to- Corcoran; Fresno to an area north of Shafter in Kern County; and Fresno to Merced.
All three plans revealed some weaknesses, some more than others, but the most logical plan from an engineering perspective was the Fresno-to-Corcoran route, authority staff members said.
The Borden-to-Corcoran would offer the most flexibility in terms of future construction for north and south, said retired Maj. Gen. Hans Van Winkle of the authority staff.
The authority was under other constraints in making Thursday's decision. One was a Dec. 31 time limit imposed by federal officials for using stimulus funds. The organization must complete a grant agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration by year-end.
The other string attached to the $715 million in federal dollars is that the tracks laid must connect with existing railroad tracks, which would be the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad operated by Amtrak. This would ensure that the tracks will be used if high-speed rail doesn't get built.
While this is a step forward for the country's first high-speed rail project, Merced leaders said they were frustrated and angered by the board's decision. Some said the decision violates the language in Proposition 1A, the High-Speed Rail bond measure that voters authorized in 2008.
Lee Boese, co-chairman of the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail committee, said this really is a train to nowhere. "The intent of the voters was to go to Fresno to Merced or Merced to Bakersfield," he said. "You've got an unusable product. I think Merced County Board of Supervisors, the city attorney and Merced county attorney will issue legal notices on the legality of the selection process."
The county invested a lot of time and effort and to have this decision made is extremely upsetting, said Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo. "It tells me the board already has their mind made up and that's how that stands. It's a political game."
On Thursday, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced said in an e-mail to the Sun-Star that the High-Speed Rail Authority violated the spirit of California's Proposition 1A by adopting the staff recommendation. "The process used to come to this decision was deceptive and suspect at best and may be violative of the law at worst," the news release said. "This is not a good day for California or this project."
Last week, he called the initial recommendation the "Thanksgiving Day Fraud." He said in a news release that "the intent of the legislature and Californians in passing Proposition 1A in 2008 was to build the system as fast as possible, maximizing ridership and the mobility of Californians in a manner that yields the most benefit consistent with available revenues," Cardoza said in the news release.
"The Merced-Fresno segment represents the backbone of this rail system, providing crucial links to Sacramento, the Bay Area, and Southern California. The Merced-Fresno segment offers a line that is ready to go and will provide a functioning segment, connecting two stations and an operating line that has independent utility. In contrast, the Borden-Corcoran segment with a high-speed train station in the Kings/Tulare region near Hanford violates Proposition 1A because it cannot be considered a 'usable segment' and it currently does not meet FRA's requirement of independent utility."
At Thursday's meeting, the authority said it would have to check with its legal counsel to ensure it didn't violate state and federal law.
Galgiani, the author of Proposition 1A, said Thursday in the telephone interview that the board's action was consistent with Proposition 1A. "There is language that says that the initial segment shall reach from one station to another, but there's no time frame for that," she said. "All in all, the overarching premise of 1A was to ensure the accountability of the project and that we construct a high speed train system in the most efficient way possible to ensure that after spending the bonds funds we actually have a train system from San Francisco through the Central Valley to Anaheim."
The board will meet again Jan. 13 to discuss whether to set aside $2 million of the $4.3 billion for environmental clearance and design work for stations in Bakersfield and Merced.
Board members also emphasized that Thursday's decision was no indication of where the heavy maintenance yard will be constructed.
No construction can begin until the authority completes its environmental reviews of the project. The federal deadline for completing these reviews is September 2011, and construction is expected to begin in 2012 and finish in 2017.
The Fresno Bee contributed to this story.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.