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California’s first high-speed rail segment may run through Central Valley

November 4, 2010 | 10:12 am

The first segment of California's proposed $43-billion high-speed rail system may not be built in the high-population coastal areas of the state, but in the Central Valley, officials said Thursday.

The federal government indicated Wednesday that it wants all of its initial funding of the project -- about $3 billion -- directed to a single segment between Fresno and Merced or Fresno and Bakersfield. The focus on the Central Valley was made in collaboration with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said Rob Kulat, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Central Valley portion of the route would form the backbone of a system linking San Francisco and Anaheim, and passing through Los Angeles' Union Station. Eventually, the system would connect to Sacramento and San Diego.

Many observers had expected the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim segment to be the first built because engineering on that section was further along.

A total of $4.3 billion in federal and state funds would be targeted for a Central Valley section of the bullet train under the proposal. That would be much of the funding currently approved for the project. And it is not yet clear how or when the High-Speed Rail Authority would secure tens of billions of dollars needed to finish the first phase of the project.

Officials apparently want to concentrate the federal funding to get the first few billion dollars into the economy and an operational piece of the system going rapidly. "We want to get people working," Kulat said.

The Central Valley segment could offer a chance to build more quickly in less-congested areas and provide the open track needed for a national demonstration of bullet trains traveling more than 200 mph.

But without initially linking to the population centers of the state's largest cities, ridership and revenue could lag until more segments are completed.

"The Central Valley is indeed key to creating the core of a true high-speed rail system in California," said Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer of the state bullet train agency.

"But no matter where we start building, the goal remains the same," he said, referring to having a Bay Area-to-Anaheim system up and running by 2020.

-- Rich Connell