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California goes after all of Florida's high-speed rail money

March 30, 2011 |  2:27 pm

California high-speed rail officials voted Wednesday to seek an additional $2.43 billion in federal construction funds recently relinquished by Florida’s new Republican governor.

The money would permit the state to extend an initial, Central Valley leg of the proposed 800-mile system.  

The chances of getting the entire Florida allocation are doubtful, but California has received some of the largest federal grants in the nation under the Obama administration’s push to develop a bullet train network similar to those in Europe and the Far East.

Even getting a majority of the cash, coupled with state match funds, would allow the California High-Speed Rail Authority to extend the starter track from Merced to Bakersfield, officials said. Work already is slated to begin next year on a $5.5- billion section of rail, viaducts and stations from Fresno to the outskirts of Bakersfield.

California’s project was approved by voters in 2008. But it has come under harsh criticism from auditors and state watchdogs for lack of a clear business model or concrete plans to finance the entire Los Angeles-to-San Francisco portion of the system, which is supposed to be finished in a decade. Some state officials are anxious about starting such a massive project without knowing if or how it will be completed.  

But project promoters have grown increasingly upbeat as the groundbreaking draws closer. “Every mile of track laid in the Central Valley represents another step toward realizing a statewide system to connect north and south, which will bring private investment, job creation and economic strength to California,” authority board Chairman Curt Pringle said after his panel’s unanimous vote to apply for the Florida funds.

Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have returned high-speed rail funds in recent months, in part because new Republican governors say the projects could expose their taxpayers to high costs in the future. As a result, California has the nation’s only true high-speed train project in advanced stages of planning still angling for federal dollars. Trains would travel up to 220 miles per hour in open areas, planners say.

Most of the funds now being allocated were approved when President Obama’s Democratic Party allies controlled both houses of Congress. Future federal funding required to finish California’s system will be harder to come by. 

Republicans have a majority in the House and key leaders have vowed to slash bullet-train support to help reduce the federal deficit. 


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-- Rich Connell