High-Speed Rail

California has been considering a high-speed rail link between L.A. and the Bay Area since Gov. Jerry Brown’s first terms as governor in the late-70s. This week, construction on the $68-billion project gets underway in Fresno. (Associated Press)

By Ralph Vartabedian
January 4, 2015

Ground will be broken Tuesday in Fresno on the first 29-mile segment of the $68-billion line

California’s bullet-train agency will officially start construction in Fresno this week on the first 29-mile segment of the system, a symbol of the significant progress the $68-billion project has made against persistent political and legal opposition.

Over the last two years, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has prevailed in a series of court challenges to the project, won a federal exemption from state environmental rules, secured several key legislative victories that improved its future funding and made a politically savvy bet to move up by several years the inauguration of service in Southern California.

But the milestone marked by Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony also will serve as a reminder of the enormous financial, technical and political risks still faced by the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco project.

Rail officials haven’t yet lined up funds needed to complete the initial system over the next 14 years. Construction is starting two years later than the state had promised. Acquisition of private property is going slower than expected. And they have yet to finalize legal agreements with two of the nation’s most powerful private freight railroads that are concerned about how a bullet train network will affect their operations.

Political supporters, mostly Democrats, see the start of construction as a validation of their vision to make California a high-speed rail leader and say the project is being well managed. Their mostly Republican opponents warn that the state is plunging deeper into a costly, flawed endeavor unlikely to be completed.

Rail board Chairman Dan Richard said the start of construction demonstrates a new era for the project in which the public “will see things rising out of the ground.” And despite the challenges ahead, he said, “We feel very confident that this program is going to go forward.”

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