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California’s first high-speed rail segment may run through the Central Valley

The first segment of California’s proposed $43-billion high-speed rail system may not be built in the highly populated coastal areas of the state, but in the Central Valley, officials said Thursday.

The federal government indicated Wednesday that it wants all of its initial funding of the project — nearly $2.5 billion —directed to a single segment either between Fresno and Merced or Fresno and Bakersfield.

The Central Valley portion of the route would form the backbone of a system linking San Francisco and Anaheim, and passing through Los Angeles’ Union Station. Eventually, the system would connect to Sacramento and San Diego.

Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the focus on the Central Valley was made in collaboration with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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Many observers had expected the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim segment to be the first built because engineering on that section was further along.

Under the proposal, a total of $4.3 billion in federal and state funds would be targeted for one of the Central Valley sections of the bullet train. That would be much of the funding currently approved for the project.

Officials apparently want to pump the first few billion dollars into the economy as fast as they can and build an operational piece of the system quickly. There is less political opposition in the Central Valley compared to the Bay Area and fewer complications presented by the heavily urbanized route between Los Angeles and Anaheim.

“We want to get people working,” Kulat said.

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It is not yet clear how or when the California High-Speed Rail Authority would secure the tens of billions of dollars needed to finish the first phase of the project.

The route between Bakersfield and Fresno would run west of California 99 for 113 miles; the section between Fresno and Merced is 60 miles. Planners estimate that the trips would take 37 and 21 minutes respectively.

The open spaces can provide room for the longer stretches of track necessary to demonstrate the capabilities of bullet trains, which can travel at more than 200 mph.

But without initially linking to the population centers of the state’s largest cities, ridership and revenue could lag until more segments are completed.

“The Central Valley is indeed key to creating the core of a true high-speed rail system in California,” said Roelof van Ark, chief executive of the state bullet train agency.

“But no matter where we start building, the goal remains the same,” he said, referring to a Bay Area-to-Anaheim system that could be in operation by 2020.

The Federal Railroad Administration decision drew strong support from government officials in the recession-battered San Joaquin Valley, where unemployment is running as high as 26%.

“We think it’s an opportunity to give the biggest bang for the buck to taxpayers,” said Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard. “And it’s the greatest opportunity to demonstrate the system will work.”

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Maggard said the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment has the lowest construction cost per mile and the $4.3-billion investment would pay for nearly one-third of the track for the first 512-mile phase, at just 10% of the total estimated cost.

Critics say the Merced-to-Fresno route has been complicated by potential resistance from Union Pacific Railroad, which is concerned about the impact on its right-of-way, and opposition by farmers and Madera County cities to proposed routes. They also question whether either segment would generate much ridership considering that Amtrak already serves the region.

“There’s no real market there,” said Rich Tolmach, director of the California Rail Foundation and a critic of the project. “The train won’t even go between Amtrak stations and the people just elected to Congress are talking about cutting funds for high-speed rail. We could end up with another bridge to nowhere.”

Van Ark, addressing the authority board in Sacramento on Thursday, outlined proposed criteria for selecting initial segments for construction and sought to shift the public focus on the project to the goal of linking major urban areas.

He repeatedly stressed that bullet train cars are not expected to be ordered or put into operation on the first segment — or possibly the second segment — until enough track is built to make high-speed service viable.

Meanwhile, he said, starter sections could be used by Amtrak or other passenger rail systems while a network large enough to justify faster train speeds is constructed.

“This is a system that has to connect Southern California to Northern California,” Van Ark said, adding that the project should be viewed and evaluated in that context.

rich.connell@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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