FRESNO -- A big federal grant could mean that California's high-speed passenger rail system will begin construction in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Monday announced that the Federal Rail Administration had allocated $715 million specifically for building the first portion of the system in the Central Valley.
But California's High-Speed Rail Authority is still weeks from officially choosing which segment will be built first, and state officials appeared to be taken off-guard by the announcement.
Critics questioned timing of the announcement -- barely a week before Cardoza and Costa face voters.
The money is part of more than $902 million in the latest round of federal funds for futuristic bullet trains to speed passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles -- and through the Valley -- at speeds of up to 220 mph.
"This will begin the first phase of construction of state-of-the-art high-speed rail in our nation" between Merced and Bakersfield, Costa said in a news conference at downtown Fresno's Amtrak station.
In a news release Monday, Cardoza said, "I commend the work of the Merced High-Speed Rail Committee and greatly appreciate the continued commitments to this project from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Joe Szabo of the federal Railroad Administration."
Earlier this year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority received more than $2 billion in federal stimulus funds for its high-speed rail program and in August applied for more.
With the addition of this round of money, and matching funds from a high-speed rail bond approved by California voters in 2008, the authority will have more than $4 billion available to start construction on the first piece of the system.
Construction could begin by 2012.
"This funding is great news for the entire Merced region. Merced County, and the cities of Atwater and Merced, and numerous other entities that sit on the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee have been strongly advocating that the Merced to Fresno section be built first and this funding can make that a reality. We are confident that the Merced to Fresno section will be the first phase constructed of the statewide California High-Speed Rail system given that we meet the independent utility requirements and have regional support for high-speed rail," said Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo in a news release.
While Costa, Cardoza and Sen. Barbara Boxer -- who all face vigorous challenges in next week's general election -- celebrated the news in public statements, they jumped ahead of any official announcement by the Obama administration.
A spokesman for the Federal Rail Administration said Monday he could not confirm details of the funding award.
Warren Flatau, the agency's acting director of public affairs, said that Secretary LaHood won't make a formal announcement about high-speed rail funding until Thursday.
And representatives from the California High-Speed Rail Authority -- the agency tasked with developing the state's $40 billion high-speed rail system over the coming decade -- said Monday they had yet to receive official notification of the grant.
Costa said he received a telephone call from LaHood on Monday telling him about the allocation.
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, R-Livingston, who wrote the state high-speed rail initiative that voters approved in 2008, told the Sun-Star on Monday afternoon, "This is a tremendous blessing for the Central Valley."
An economic analysis by the state rail authority estimates that as many as 600,000 construction jobs would be created to build the project over the coming decade, including up to 135,000 jobs in the Central Valley.
Several Valley communities are vying for the maintenance yard, coveted because it could provide as many as 1,500 permanent jobs.
"Our region has aggressively competed for high-speed rail and the heavy maintenance facility and we are ready to put our community to work," said Mayor Bill Spriggs. "We have continually pursued the high-priority corridor designation and we have mobilized the support of the northern Central Valley in advocating that the Merced to Fresno section be built first."
Just last week, Fresno County officials approved using $25 million from Measure C, a half-cent transportation sales tax, to sweeten their bid for the state to build the maintenance yard at the south edge of Fresno. Merced is offering up space at the Castle Commerce Center for $1.
Monday's announcement, however, may cloud how the state determines which of four competing segments -- San Francisco to San Jose, Merced to Fresno, Fresno to Bakersfield, and Los Angeles to Anaheim -- will be the first off the drawing board.
A week ago, state officials unveiled their proposed criteria for choosing the first segment, which must be built by 2017. Officials are not expected to complete their evaluation of the options and make a decision until at least December.
"We have no particular information on the award being designated for a particular part of the state," said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the state High-Speed Rail Authority. "That's not how the previous awards have been released to us."
Wall said once her agency is notified about the federal funds, officials will examine any conditions linked to the grant.
"If this is now part of the federal requirements, that will become another consideration in our selection process," she said. "We want to make sure we pick a section that is best suited to be the core of our system."
Costa acknowledged that the state rail authority is still evaluating environmental, engineering and operational issues for each of the four competing segments. But he said the latest federal grant will "affect what direction the state authority will move in."
The announcements by Costa and others raised questions among political observers that the timing -- just a week ahead of an election in which Democrats are struggling to maintain a hold on their majorities in the House and Senate -- had the aroma of pork-barrel politics.
Costa, for instance, is facing a challenge from Republican challenger Andy Vidak, while Cardoza is running for re-election against Republican Mike Berryhill. Boxer is in a fight against former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina to hang on to her seat in the U.S. Senate.
A sampling of news reports indicates that similar announcements of high-speed rail funds were being made across the country Monday -- mostly by Democratic lawmakers -- in other areas where high-speed rail plans are being developed.
The timing of the announcements by California Democrats in re-election battles is all very predictable, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California.
"Every president has done it to one degree or another, no matter the party," she said.