California selects contractors for next phase of bullet train route

Winning bid is picked for next phase of construction on California's high-speed rail project

The state high-speed rail authority took another key step Thursday in building the initial segments of the bullet train system between Los Angeles and San Francisco, saying it had preliminarily selected a team of contractors for another 65 miles of the route through the Central Valley.

While the agency continues to move ahead with planning, contracts, legal settlements and political agreements, it has yet to start heavy construction in Fresno, which was expected about two years ago. But officials have vowed that the late start will not delay their completion dates in 2017 and 2018 for about 130 miles of rail line from Madera to Bakersfield.

The team for the 65-mile section, led by Dragados USA, a subsidiary of a Spanish construction firm, submitted the lowest of three bids for the new contract and was judged as having the highest technical competence score. It submitted a bid of $1.23 billion, well below the $1.74 billion submitted by the team led by Sylmar-based Tutor Perini and the $2.07 billion by the team led by Samsung E&C Americas, a Los Angeles-based unit of a South Korean conglomerate.

The low bid came in well under the state estimate of $1.5 billion to $2 billion for the work. Jeff Morales, chief executive of the rail agency, credited the low prices to strong competition and said Thursday's decision is a "significant milestone" in the project.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board must still confirm the selection, which is expected at its January meeting. An actual contract could take months to execute, just as the process did when the first contract, covering construction of more than 29 miles, was issued to Tutor Perini in 2013. The Dragados team includes Colorado-based Flatiron Construction and Oakland-based Shimmick Construction.

The 65-mile segment runs from near downtown Fresno south to the Kern County line, passing nearby but not through the small farming towns of Hanford, Allensworth and Corcoran. The cost of the segment, about $19 million per mile, is significantly less than the 29-mile segment through an urbanized part of Fresno, which will cost about $34 million per mile.

The new segment of rail has been among the most controversial in the Central Valley, raising the ire of farmers who said the line was bisecting pristine agriculture fields with some of the richest soil in the state, if not the nation. The route planning triggered a number of lawsuits by farmers and counties.

Hanford officials strongly objected to having trains running through their historic downtown at 220 mph. Instead, the route swings in a semicircle to the east. Another bypass near Corcoran avoids sensitive wetlands. An Allensworth bypass avoids a wildlife preserve and a historic state park, according to rail agency documents.

John Tos, a farmer who filed an unsuccessful suit to block the project, vowed to continue his opposition.

"It appears they are doing a lot of paperwork," Tos said. "It is a charade they are putting on for the public."

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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