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First leg of California high-speed rail project chosen, critics call it a 'train to nowhere'

December 2, 2010 |  1:33 pm

Citing a need for jobs and fast-approaching federal deadlines for funding, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board on Thursday unanimously approved construction of the first leg of the project -- a 65-mile section in the Central Valley that would not operate trains until more of the system is built.

Costing at least $4.15 billion, the segment would run between Borden and Corcoran with stations in Fresno and Hanford, which are located in an area of the state hit so hard by the recession and declines in agriculture that it has been dubbed the New Appalachia.

Included in the effort are tracks, station platforms, bridges and viaducts, which will elevate the line through urban areas. The initial section, however, will not be equipped with maintenance facilities, locomotives, passenger cars or an electrical system necessary to power high-speed trains.

Board members said the public should not view the initial section in isolation and that the intent of the authority is to phase in train service as the rail network is expanded in the future to major population centers.

"The system is to be built in segments," said Tom Umberg, a former state legislator from Orange County and vice chair of the high-speed rail board. "We wouldn't be here if we thought we would only build one segment of the system."

The overall project calls for a 500-mile link that would operate trains up to 220 mph between Anaheim and San Francisco. Extensions to Sacramento and San Diego would be constructed later.

The authority board voted 7-0 to approve the starter segment. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, the board's chairman, was absent. Richard Katz, a Los Angeles County transportation official, resigned from the board last month.

How long the track would remain dormant is uncertain. Future funding for the $43-billion project could be threatened by growing concerns about the $1.3-trillion federal deficit and mounting Republican opposition in Congress to several billion dollars in federal assistance already approved for the project, but not yet allocated to it.

There are also concerns about the authority's ability to attract private investors and funding from local governments along the route.

Though some residents and civic leaders in the Central Valley spoke in favor of the project at Thursday's board meeting, some strong backers criticized the initial segment, saying it did not connect major cities and ran afoul of provisions of the voter-approved ballot measure to build a high-speed rail system, such as locating a station in Merced.

Given the uncertainties about the project's long-term funding, some cities that were left out of the first leg expressed concern about how long it would take for future extensions to reach them.

Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs argued that the greatest population and unemployment in the Central Valley was north of the proposed segment. Joblessness in some areas of the Central Valley is as high as 25%, among the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Officials there fear that they "will be left out for a long, long time," Spriggs said.

Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston described the bullet train as a "fabulous" project, but expressed dismay that the initial segment did not link Merced and Fresno, two university towns . She told the board that the initial leg should not "go from one unknown location to another unknown location. The decision you make must make common sense."

Supporters of the initial route took umbrage at the suggestion that the first investment in the state's high-speed rail system was going into an area of little transportation consequence.

"This is not a train to nowhere," said Visalia Mayor Bob Link. "Fresno is one of the largest cities in California."

Former Los Banos Assemblyman Rusty Areias made an impassioned plea for the project, which could create thousands of jobs and pump money into the Central Valley's economy. " 'Nowhere' will never share in the prosperity of this state until you do something about its relative isolation. You have to do something about [that]. Until you do, it will remain the New Appalachia."

Rapidly creating jobs and avoiding community resistance in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas were part of the rationale for targeting the Central Valley for the first segment, said Rob Kulat, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. The high-speed rail authority had considered building the first section in either the Bay Area or from Los Angeles to Anaheim.

"We think it's a good place to start," Kulat said of the initial section. "It's a starting point for the larger development and it has to be really seen in that context. It's the first of many more to come."

The selection of the first segment was made as deadlines loomed to secure the federal money that has been approved for the project. High-speed rail officials say they must finalize the authority's grant agreements and submit the final paperwork to the railroad administration by the end of December -- a deadline that has raised further questions about the project.

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the high-speed rail project, said the authority board is acting prematurely to meet the federal deadlines and without answering critical questions raised by the state auditor, the Legislative Analyst, the attorney general and the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, which called the project's ridership projections unreliable.

"You don't want to lose the federal funds, but you don't want to make a poor decision in a panic mode," said Lowenthal, who fears the agency could create an "orphan" length of track that will never be used by high-speed trains. "The route could be appropriate, but lots of issues still aren't resolved. I'm concerned about the process."


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-- Dan Weikel and Rich Connell