Federal officials on Tuesday cleared the way for construction of a major segment of the California bullet train project: 114 miles of track from Fresno to Bakersfield.
After months of reviewing the proposed route and related environmental studies, the Surface Transportation Board conditionally approved the longest section of the Central Valley alignment, exempting it from further board oversight.
"This is the final clearance for construction," said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the California High Speed Rail Authority. "There is nothing else the Surface Transportation Board needs to do."
The approval requires the agency to build a route designated by the Federal Railroad Administration and to address potential environmental problems during construction.
Among the conditions of the approval are mitigating impacts on freight rail operations in the Central Valley, complying with the National Historic Preservation Act and prohibiting pile driving within 300 feet of Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield.
The Fresno-to-Bakersfield section is part of a $68-billion proposal to build a 500-mile high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Work is getting underway on a 29-mile section from Madera to Fresno.
Surface Transportation Board members Dennis R. Elliott III and Deb Miller voted to approve the 114-mile segment. Board member Ann Begeman, who has questioned the project's financial fitness in earlier board proceedings, opposed the approval.
In a written dissent, Begeman said the panel's decision was "hasty" and "could have very serious consequences and needlessly impose service disruptions on a key segment of our nation's freight rail network and its shippers."
The route parallels parts of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. right-of-way. BNSF officials say the project could seriously interfere with their operations during and after construction.
At Tuesday's high-speed-rail board meeting, directors said they were encouraged by the federal panel's decision, as well as the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from state fees collected from businesses that produce greenhouse gases.
The Legislature's decision to provide the money will free up $250 million this fiscal year and 25% of the revenue annually from the fee program.
Rail officials said the money will be used to electrify the Caltrain commuter railroad in the Bay Area, help build the Central Valley segment and speed up planning and construction of a Palmdale-to-Burbank section of the system.
"For the past three years, all the effort was in the Central Valley. Now we are starting to build in the other direction. We are spreading out," said board Chairman Dan Richard. "People will now see that we are getting off the ground."