HIGH-SPEED RAIL:

Calif. OKs new funding to extend project's first leg southward

California officials yesterday voted to match $616 million in federal funds for high-speed rail that became available recently when Ohio and Wisconsin backed out of the race to build what would be the first U.S. bullet-train project.

The vote brings the total money available for construction of a first leg in California to $5.5 billion, as part of a larger project that would one day link San Francisco and Los Angeles. This means the initial segment of track will now extend southward from Fresno to Bakersfield, connecting the two largest cities in the farm-rich Central Valley.

The agency with jurisdiction over the Golden State's nascent project -- the California High-Speed Rail Authority -- decided to match the new federal infusion with state dollars with authority granted it under a bond passed by California voters in 2008.

"Ohio's loss is our gain," said Tom Umberg, vice chairman of the authority's board of directors. "When other states shrunk from the challenge of high-speed rail, California's firm commitment to this project paid off."

California and Florida were big winners recently when the Obama administration redistributed more than $1 billion in high-speed rail grants abandoned by incoming governors in Wisconsin and Ohio (E&ENews PM, Dec. 9). The money went to 14 states in all, with California netting the most.

Officials at the authority approved engineering plans for the first 65-mile stretch in the heart of the Central Valley earlier this month. The segment, part of which would be built on an elevated track through the heart of Fresno, was at the time described by some as connecting "nowhere to nowhere," leading to criticism of how the state intends to spend its initial allotment on the massive public works project (Greenwire, Dec. 3).

But the ability to connect to Bakersfield should give the authority more political cover. The nine-member board had been under pressure to come up with a decision before the end of the month, when federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would have been 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 directed the authority to start its project in the Central Valley -- or lose the cash.

Umberg said project engineers looked at extending the first leg northward, to Merced, but opted to instead go with the more heavily populated Bakersfield.

"With several alternatives for tracks still being studied in the environmental impacts, a commitment at this stage to build further north would carry a risk that the tracks could not tie in with existing passenger rail service -- a requirement for this round of federal funding," a memo from the authority explained.

Sullivan is based in San Francisco.