HIGH-SPEED RAIL:

Calif. agency bows to U.S. pressure, picks Central Valley for project launch

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California officials yesterday selected a 65-mile stretch in the heart of the Central Valley as the starting point for construction of a electrified rail line that might someday connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with a bullet train capable of topping 200 miles per hour.

The segment, part of which would be built on an elevated track through the heart of Fresno, Calif., has been described by some as connecting "nowhere to nowhere," leading to criticism of how the state intends to spend its initial allotment of $4.3 billion on the massive public works project.

But the agency in charge of the process, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, stood behind the Fresno leg after enduring several hours of public testimony here from dozens of California mayors, supervisors, legislators and other leaders. In the end, the board voted unanimously in favor of the segment, even though it fails to connect two major cities and will not carry passengers until a second leg is added.

The nine-member board has been under pressure to come up with a decision before the end of the month, when the federal half of the $4.3 billion -- largely from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- could well have been placed out of reach.

Adding to the pressure was a $715 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration's High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. The grant, engineered in part by Rep. Jim Costa (D) of Fresno, specifically directs the authority to start its project in the Central Valley -- or lose the cash.

Costa, whose district will host the first segment, helped get the strings attached as a way to spur job growth in the state's farm belt, where unemployment figures and foreclosures have been among the worst in the nation. Also attached are conditions that the first segment be able to operate independently of a high-speed rail system, in the event that funding dries up in the years ahead and the track is left idle.

Officials at the authority, under pressure from the public, insisted yesterday the Fresno leg would connect to a parallel track owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe and used by Amtrak, in the event a "worst-case scenario" necessitates the end of the high-speed rail vision. An additional 11-mile connector line between the tracks would have to be built in the event that happens.

Carrie Pourvahidi, the authority's deputy director, said choosing among three alternatives in the Central Valley -- as opposed to more active rail corridors in the Bay Area or Southern California -- was necessary because of policy constraints and "deadlines dictated by the federal government." She added that the board has no intention of building just one segment and leaving it behind for local use.

"We are recommending a place to start building a complete high-speed rail system ... our entire conversation has been framed with that in mind," she said. "The authority is confident further federal funding will be forthcoming."

As for the Fresno neck itself, project manager Hans Van Winkle, a former major general in the Army Corps of Engineers, admitted the selection was constrained by the amount of money available at this stage. The project does not have enough cash at this point to connect two station stops -- say, Fresno with Bakersfield -- so engineers decided on what they felt was their best option from a point north of Fresno to a point south of the city.

Van Winkle described the section as a good mix of rural and urban space that will let engineers who have never built high-speed rail develop a "learning curve" on how to proceed with the rest of the project, "to allow us to get up to speed very, very quickly," he explained.

"Nobody in the United States has built high-speed rail before ... this is not a short-term project," he said. "We're going to be here a long time."

'Laughingstock' in Congress?

The stakes for the future of high-speed rail are high.

The California proposal, which represents the largest public works project in the United States, is contending with a run of negative press about its economic value as well as growing local opposition from residents in Silicon Valley who fear it will be loud and dangerous (several communities have filed a lawsuit to stop it). And lately there has been fallout from Ohio and Wisconsin, where newly elected Republican governors have decided to scrap bullet-train projects after deciding they were a waste of money.

Against that backdrop, the criticism at yesterday's public hearing in Sacramento City Hall was loud and sometimes emotional. Critics of the authority accused the body of playing politics with the first leg rather than pursuing a more common-sense route that might show the train in action and possibly attract private dollars to a project that is expected to cost anywhere from $40 billion to $60 billion to complete.

The system was authorized by a $9.95 billion bond passed by California voters in 2008, but it will have to attract billions of dollars more in federal and private funds to become a reality. It is unclear how the Republican-controlled House and a tighter Senate will view the project in the next Congress.

Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, said the authority was playing into the hands of Republican budget hawks in Congress who could view the route selected as the most expensive to build per mile while not moving one passenger in either direction. He dismissively called the route "Fresno elevated rapid transit" and noted that it runs right through Costa's district.

"For $4 billion, all you get is this wild, 60-feet-in-the-air platform in the middle of Fresno," he said. "It's a crazy idea."

He added: "You guys are going to be a laughingstock in Congress."

John Pedrozo, a Merced County supervisor, accused the board of playing politics to satisfy lawmakers who had been more instrumental back in Washington in terms of attracting federal dollars. He added that the authority had failed to communicate with supporters who had worked on its behalf, which risks alienating future support, especially from Republicans in California who might start to view the idea in a more negative light.

"You can't say the process is not political," Pedrozo said. "It just smells bad. It tastes bad."

Still others bristled at the notion that the Fresno leg represents "nowhere to nowhere." Visalia Mayor Robert Link said the selection makes sense from an engineering perspective, as a way to start in the middle and build outward, which is how high-speed rail has been constructed in other countries.

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

Credibility gap?

In response, a board member and former member of Congress from San Diego, Lynn Schenk, expressed hesitation to support the Fresno leg because of the possible reaction from Capitol Hill and the authority's poor communication with the public.

Another board member, David Crane, a special adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), was openly critical of the selection -- before he voted for it -- suggesting the authority had failed to consider which leg would attract more federal dollars or send the right signal in terms of public relations.

Schenk said she was "frustrated" that the route was barred from running through a more populated corridor, but she also rejected the notion that the track would be connecting nowhere to nowhere. "The Central Valley is not nowhere," she said.

"We have the spotlight on us because we have the money," she said. "That spotlight has shown that we have a tremendous credibility gap. Some of it is unwarranted, but much of it is our own doing."

Crane was just as critical, suggesting the board should have approved a route that would actually demonstrate high-speed rail in action, at full speed, from one station to the next. He also expressed concern about the cost of building the elevated track.

"I think it would help us a lot if we had chosen a segment that had a lower cost per mile," Crane said. "We're not presenting this in the best possible fashion to the country."

A final concern was whether the board actually had legal grounds to approve the Fresno leg, as Proposition 1a -- which approved the state bonds in 2008 -- expressly states the project must be completed in "usable" segments. An attorney that represents the board was asked if the Fresno leg would stand the legal test of usable segment.

"I cannot answer that question without having researched it," he told the board, just before the vote.

Sullivan is based in San Francisco.

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