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Work on state’s high-speed rail could start this year

Tim Sheehan/The Fresno BeeThe seating inside the tourist class of the Spanish-built AVE trains gives passengers a smooth ride with room to work. Each seat has a power outlet and a headphone, jack and many riders do business as they travel the country.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority proposes to build 520 miles of tracks between San Francisco and Los Angeles, via the central San Joaquin Valley, for electric trains traveling up to 220 mph. The cost is estimated at about $98 billion. 

Supporters say high-speed trains will ease freeway congestion, improve air quality and cut travel time. Opponents say the plan is unproven, extravagant and disruptive to farms, homes and businesses.

Work could begin late this year in Fresno on the first section between Merced and Bakersfield, described by planners as the backbone of the statewide system and scorned by others as a route unlikely to see many passengers.

No high-speed trains would run on the system until it reaches either the Bay Area or the Los Angeles Basin, and those sections can be built only as money becomes available. Ultimately, plans call for service to Sacramento in the north, and through the Inland Empire to San Diego in the south. 

For the first leg, the authority has more than $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation money in hand and hopes to match that with nearly $3 billion from Proposition 1A, which California voters approved in 2008. But first, the state Legislature must decide whether to authorize the sale of Prop. 1A bonds.

It’s unclear who will lead the agency after a recent shakeup. Roelof van Ark, rail authority CEO, announced his resignation last week. Board member Manuel Toledo resigned Dec. 31, when his term expired, and Thomas Umberg will step down as board chairman in February but remain on the board. Two key staffers, deputy director Dan Leavitt and press secretary Rachel Wall, have resigned.

Tim Sheehan is a business reporter for The Fresno Bee and covers high-speed rail issues. The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or 559-441-6319. This special project is the result of a partnership among California news organizations following the state’s high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Bakersfield Californian, California Watch, The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, U-T San Diego, KQED, the Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and The Modesto Bee.

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