On a vacant lot in a depressed industrial area of Fresno, Gov. Jerry Brown and other California leaders on Tuesday marked the beginning of construction of the nation's first bullet train and one of its most ambitious public works projects ever.
Conceived in Brown's first terms as governor a generation ago, the $68-billion line that is supposed to connect the state's major population centers has finally reached a stage where heavy construction equipment and thousands of workers are ready to begin raising bridges, building underpasses and preparing miles of track bed.
The carefully choreographed ceremony at the site of a future Fresno station marked a historic milestone for the project, which remains unpopular with many Californians and has had to overcome decades of political wrangling, engineering challenges and legal hurdles.
The groundbreaking, which took place next to a late 1800s Southern Pacific train depot that will be incorporated into the project, was largely symbolic.
The actual start of major construction may be weeks or months away, as engineering work progresses and the state continues a slow process of acquiring land for the bullet train route. Thus far, the state has acquired about one-fifth of the parcels needed for the initial 29-mile segment scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1, 2017.
Brown urged Californians to discount the project's many critics, saying that naysayers also warned against other major public works investments in the state water project and the Golden Gate Bridge, now both seen as essential pieces of infrastructure.
He compared the bullet train, which he has made a signature legacy project, to construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, which took generations.
"The high-speed rail links us from the past to the future; from the south to Fresno and the north," Brown said. "This is truly a California project, bringing us together today."
Speaking to dozens of union members, contractors and federal, state and local politicians, the governor acknowledged that he, like many opponents, once had misgivings about the state's ability to secure the money needed to finish the project.
"I wasn't sure where we were going to get the rest of the money," Brown said in a 12-minute address, one of his longest speeches focusing on the controversial project. "Don't worry about it. We are going to get it."
As a long-term investment in California's future and in the context of the state's massive economy, Brown said the bullet train "is not expensive."
Proponents maintain that the project will dramatically improve California's transportation system, spur economic growth, improve chronically poor air quality in the Central Valley, reduce greenhouse gases and help save the state's agriculture industry.
Critics including Bay Area homeowners, Central Valley farmers and Republican leaders who control the federal purse strings in both houses of Congress dispute those claims.
While on stage Tuesday, Brown and other speakers had to contend with protesters from the Central Valley tea party, who yelled from behind a nearby chain-link fence in a vain attempt to disrupt the ceremony. State GOP leaders said they weren't invited to the ceremony and the public was not allowed inside a perimeter guarded by more than a dozen state police.
The Obama administration has championed the project and committed $3.2 billion in construction funds. Heads of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Railroad Administration appeared at the event to deliver brief speeches.
More than a dozen construction workers in hard hats and their union leaders, who provided political support for the project, surrounded the governor as he talked about the importance of putting people to work.
Robbie Hunter, director of the state's council of building trade unions, said in a speech that the event marked the start of the "greatest infrastructure project, not only in the history of California, but the nation." Hunter said the project would create 66,000 jobs over the next 16 years and would be "built once, built right, in the least amount of time and at the lowest bid."
The groundbreaking came two years after state officials first promised to begin construction. Under federal law, about $2 billion of grants and $2 billion of matching state funds must be spent by the end of September 2017. That means an average of $3 million to $4 million of work will need to be completed every calendar day to avoid forfeiting unused federal money.
Already, the rail agency has been tearing down old plants, nightclubs and motels in preparation for the start of construction. The new station in Fresno will occupy several city blocks that are being cleared. Steel and other debris from an abandoned Del Monte canning plant have yet to be cleared. A seed and agricultural supply facility, also abandoned, is scheduled to be torn down soon.
Fresno city officials said the new bullet train station, two blocks from a $16-million development of the Fulton Street pedestrian mall, would be a key part of Mayor Ashley Swearengin's plan to revitalize the downtown.
The initial phase of rail line construction involves a section of route between Madera and the south end of Fresno's downtown, under a $1-billion contract awarded to Sylmar-based builder Tutor Perini Corp. The first major piece of new construction, which may not begin until April, will be a bridge spanning the Fresno River.
High-Speed Rail Authority board Chairman Dan Richard said the project is renewing the spirit that helped build California. The state is entering "a period of sustained construction on the nation's first high-speed rail system — for the next five years in the Central Valley and for a decade after that across California," he said.
That investment "will forever improve the way Californians commute, travel, and live," he said.
The initial segment includes bridges over two rivers, a lengthy trench through much of Fresno and a freeway underpass. The underpass is among the most technically challenging parts of the first phase. A concrete tunnel will be constructed in a giant pit and then pushed into place by giant hydraulic jacks. The procedure, which is known in the construction industry as a jacked box, has seldom been used in the U.S.
The project has roughly $26 billion in potential state and federal funding over the next 14 years, about half of the amount needed to complete the line from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Proponents say that they foresee a number of ways to raise additional money, including selling advertising space on the system, and they expect private companies to make significant investments once an initial portion of the system is operating in about 2022.