High-speed rail to begin in Central Valley

Rail authority, driven by federal grants, will select one of two Central Valley segments for rail line's starting point

California's controversial high-speed rail project will make its debut in Central Valley, the California High-Speed Rail Authority decided Thursday morning.

The decision to begin construction in Central Valley was driven by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which last week allocated $715 million for the rail project to the Central Valley section of the line, which would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles in its initial phase.

Rail CEO Roelof van Ark said he recently learned from the FRA that it's not just the recent grant that needs to be applied to the Central Valley, but all federal allocations that the authority has received to date.

"The FRA has actually determined that their funding is to be applied to either of the two segments of the Central Valley," van Ark told the board.

The two options are the Merced-to-Fresno and the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segments.

The rail project has encountered bitter opposition on the Peninsula, where city officials and citizen activists have persistently derided the authority's business plan as unrealistic and its ridership projections as unreliable. The Palo Alto City Council, which once supported the project unanimously, recently passed a resolution of "no confidence" in the rail project and has called on state and federal officials to stop funding the project. Palo Alto also joined Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups in a lawsuit against the rail authority.

Residents from various Peninsula cities plan to hold a rally at the Burlingame Caltrain station this Sunday (Nov. 7) from 11 a.m. to noon to protest the project in its current form.

Thursday's decision means that the Bay Area segment of the line won't become a reality for years. The segment between San Francisco and San Jose was among those that the rail authority had considered starting with, but then discarded in favor of Central Valley.

Van Ark said at the Thursday meeting that the project's goal is to connect two metropolitan areas together. He released a statement Thursday saying that the ultimate goal remains a "statewide high-speed system up and running in 2020."

"The Central Valley is indeed key to creating the core of a true high-speed rail system in California, as that is where our trains will travel truly high speeds of 220 miles per hour," van Ark said.

Funding for the rail project remains a major question. The rail authority has been allocated more than $4 billion in federal and state funds far short of the project's estimated $43 billion price tag. Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said at this week's council meeting that given the funding constraints, and the rail authority's choice of the Central Valley as its starting point, "it can be a very long time before a segment connecting to one of the two metropolitan areas gets built.

"When and if this entire system could be built from Anaheim to San Francisco has become more and more in question," Burt said.

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