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High Speed Rail faces more setbacks
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In yet another setback for the California High Speed Rail Authority, the Surface Transportation Board recently denied a request that would exempt the project from environmental review processes for the construction of a segment running from Fresno to Bakersfield.

The 114-mile high speed rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield is the second of nine segments of the planned California High Speed Train system, which when completed would provide a high speed intercity passenger rail service that would span more than 800 miles across the state.

Earlier this year, the Surface Transportation Board did grant an exemption for construction for the first segment of the high speed train system, running for 28-miles between Merced and Fresno. Rail officials are currently spending up to $3.3 billion in federal money to start engineering work on the first section, although the federal money is contingent upon eventual state matching funds.

Although the board granted the exemption for the first segment, the second segment running from Fresno to Bakersfield did not see the same outcome, setting the Authority back in their plans for construction.

Surface Transportation Board Vice Chairwoman Ann Begeman said that she fully supported the board’s decision, and that the board should continue to not approve any segment of the project without fully carrying out a comprehensive analysis of each segment.

“I support the Board’s decision to reject the California High Speed Rail Authority’s request for a decision on the transportation aspects of the project before the environmental review of the project is completed,” said Begeman. “Today’s decision acknowledges the growing controversy regarding California’s bond funding process. Considerable federal taxpayers’ dollars are already at stake and the recent state court decision may very likely impact construction and timing costs. Just as we need to consider the environmental aspects along with the transportation merits of this project before granting further approval, we should also understand its funding aspects, and then make a decision on a full record.”

Begeman also noted that the Authority’s current petition fails to include any details about the project’s finances — an area that Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) has also brought attention to.

“The STB ruling is another major blow in a series of setbacks to the California project,” said Denham. “Last week’s court ruling established that the Authority must complete the environmental review process and submit a legitimate funding plan before issuing any Prop1A bonds.”

Denham says that without the Prop1 bonds the Authority will not be able to fund the project.

“STB has denied the Authority’s request for a construction exemption and requires the full environmental review to be completed before construction can be approved,” said Denham. “This ruling shows the project must comply with all state and federal laws before moving forward.”

Earlier this week, a ruling by the Sacramento County judge prevented the state from selling construction bonds for the project, ordering the California High Speed Rail Authority to write a new funding plan. The judge also ordered the Authority to have all environmental clearances in place for the first 300 miles of track in the Central Valley — a process that is said to take months or years.

While rail authority officials say rewriting the funding plan should not take that long, they have not directly addressed how long it would take to get environmental approval for the full 300 miles.

The decision to deny the Authority’s request is said to extend the time for public comment on the transportation merits of the proposed construction project. Officials say that they hope to start construction in January or February.