The Hollywood Inn, a shuttered nightclub in a run-down section of Fresno, has been demolished. A few miles away, an 80-foot-deep shaft to test soil conditions has been sunk into the banks of the Fresno River.
Officials say such activities, along with recent legal victories and new long-term state funding, show genuine progress on the $68-billion high-speed-rail project that would link the state's major cities with 220-mph train service.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this article said that Ron Tutor, chief executive of Tutor Perini, spoke to securities analysts in a conference call this week. The call was last week.
But the state has yet to start full-blown, sustained construction of permanent structures — including bridges, tracks and train stations — at least partly because it lacks most of the Central Valley land needed for an initial 29-mile segment that will pass through Fresno. The state has acquired 71 of 526 parcels needed for the segment, about 13% of the total, according to figures provided by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
The start of heavy construction is not only symbolically important but could help weaken political and legal opposition to the project. However, slow progress could threaten the state's ability to meet funding deadlines.
Jeff Morales, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the agency has had to increase staff devoted to acquiring property. "We did get off to a slower start, but we are accelerating it," he said, adding that he believes construction started last year when the authority issued a building contract for the first segment to Sylmar-based Tutor Perini Corp.
The state has the legal power to take property from farmers, homeowners and businesses, but that process can be time-consuming. Morales noted that the rail agency is relying on a separate state entity, the State Public Works Board, to condemn property for the project where needed. The board said last week that it had taken initial legal steps to seize 19 parcels.
The authority, after missing earlier targets as far back as December 2012 to begin construction, is reluctant to say when full-scale work will start.
Among other things, Morales said, the authority wants to avoid gearing up major construction activity and then having to stop it because the state doesn't have land required to keep going. The parcels now controlled by rail officials aren't contiguous, limiting the amount of building currently possible.
"We are doing work as we can," he added, citing demolition, soils analysis and environmental work as among the pre-construction activities.
The start of major construction on a large public works project marks the crossing of a key political threshold. Martin Wachs, a UCLA professor emeritus of urban planning, recalled that legendary New York City construction czar Robert Moses once said that after the first stake enters the ground, it can never be pulled up.
That dynamic is at work here, Wachs said. "Once the project is under construction, it has a different political cast," he said. "The longer they wait, the more opportunity there is for people to try to block it."
In general, Wachs said, starting construction without the bulk of the property needed for the initial section creates its own set of potential pitfalls, including protracted litigation over property that could bring progress to a halt. "The risks are substantial," he said.
State officials have long said starting the project in the Central Valley would be easier than building in highly developed Southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area. "If this is less risky, imagine what a riskier location would be," Wachs said.
Morales said the risks are manageable. "Claiming construction has been delayed is misleading and misses the point, which is that we are on schedule for completion," Morales said.
Purchase offers to landowners began 18 months ago and have gone out slowly since. And a number of owners have rejected those initial offers, said Anthony Leones, a Bay Area attorney and specialist in condemnation.
In highway construction, all the property required is often in hand before the start of major construction, but experts say that those projects typically provide the building contractor with a completed design. The bullet train will be built under a method known as "design build," in which a single contractor team designs and builds a project simultaneously.
Contractor Tutor Perini will be using that approach, which allows more flexibility in deciding how to schedule work as land becomes available, said Will Kempton, former Caltrans chief and now executive director of Transportation California, a Sacramento trade group.
Ron Tutor, chief executive of Tutor Perini, said land acquisition is a key limitation in getting major work started. The starting date of construction is "entirely in the hands of the authority," he said.
Tutor reiterated last week that land acquisition remains important, telling securities analysts in a conference call that he had started demolition and soil testing. "Further construction work along the 29-mile route will proceed in the coming months as access to the various land parcels is provided by the authority," he said.
Although noting the authority has stepped up efforts to purchase property, Morales said the matter is not entirely under the agency's control. "We don't have the same authority that Caltrans has to acquire land," he said.
The authority is planning to complete 130 miles of track from Madera to Bakersfield for about $6 billion. It must spend $2 billion in federal money, matched with an equal amount of state funds, by 2017 under the terms of a grant.
The state has set an aggressive construction timeline that would require spending $3 million to $5 million every calendar day, assuming construction starts this year, one of the fastest known rates of infrastructure spending in the U.S.
The rail authority says it is up to the job and expects to meet the federal funding deadlines.
The challenges in assembling all the property for the 29-mile initial track section represent only a fraction of the task ahead for the full project, which will require purchasing or condemning thousands of parcels.
Two freight railroads with lines close to the bullet train route have not yet agreed to give up any property the state is seeking or provide permission for high-speed train structures to cross over their tracks. In formal comments on the authority's business and environmental plans, they have said the project may interfere with their business. Burlington Northern Santa Fe in May described the rail authority's plans to relocate its right of way as "notably deficient."
Morales said the authority is attempting to work cooperatively with the railroads but ultimately has the legal power to take their land through condemnation, if necessary.
Mehdi Morshed, the former chief executive of the project and a high-speed rail proponent, said acquiring land for transportation typically involves property owners trying to squeeze the state for the highest possible price.
"It gets to be a pretty high-stakes game," he said. "Time is in favor of the property sellers. Not many people are anxious to grab the money and run.
"Doing a project like this requires a miracle. At every stage of the game, you think you really can't afford it, but you really can't afford not to do it. That's what will keep coming back at people."