SACRAMENTO -- The California High-Speed Rail Authority won approval Thursday from a federal railroad oversight board to start construction this summer on the first leg of what would be the nation's first bullet train.
In a 67-page decision issued Thursday, the Surface Transportation Board ruled 2-1 that the state could begin work on the first 65 miles of the project from Merced to Fresno, as long as it maintains the current route and follows through on promises to mitigate damage to the environment caused by construction.
The STB's ruling removes a key hurdle for the rail authority to start construction of the $68 billion system in the Central Valley. A ruling against the state could have caused substantial delays and cost overruns for the project, which is under tight federal construction deadlines to collect billions of dollars in federal matching grants.
Republican Rep. Jeff Denham had appealed to the board to step in and halt the project, arguing that the obscure federal agency should have oversight because the train will eventually connect to interstate rail lines.
The board ruled in April that it does have oversight but granted the project an exemption from its usual process Thursday, allowing it to go ahead.
"We can now focus on starting major work on the project this summer and providing thousands of jobs in the Central Valley," the authority's chief executive, Jeff Morales, said in a written statement.
The board's ruling said California officials and the Federal Railroad Administration have already extensively reviewed potential environmental and archaeological harm from the project and the current construction plans include steps to mitigate it.
It said the existing transportation infrastructure in the San Joaquin Valley is insufficient to meet future needs and that without the bullet train, air quality would continue to deteriorate and travel times would increase.
"The current transportation system in the San Joaquin Valley region has not kept pace with the increase in population, economic activity, and tourism," the STB wrote. "The interstate highway system, commercial airports, and conventional passenger rail systems serving the intercity market are operating at or near capacity and would require large public investments for maintenance and expansion to meet existing demand and future growth over the next 25 years or beyond."
Board Chairman Daniel R. Elliott, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, and Commissioner Francis P. Mulvey, who was appointed to the board by President George W. Bush and then reappointed by Obama, voted for the exemption, while Vice Chairwoman Ann D. Begeman, a Republican appointed by Obama, voted against it.
The California board overseeing the project last week approved a nearly $1 billion bid for a consortium of engineering and construction firms to start work on the first 30-mile segment from Madera to Fresno.
Voters approved issuing $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, but public support has dwindled in recent years as the costs have soared and California's economy weakened.
A lawsuit pending in Sacramento County Superior Court has left the proceeds of those bonds in limbo. The Kings County Board of Supervisors and other opponents claim that the project no longer meets the terms promised to voters in 2008 and wants a judge to prevent the authority from spending any more bond money. Rail officials have said they intend to spend some $3.5 billion in federal funds first.