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High-speed rail extended to Bakersfield

Posted: December 20, 2010 10:26 p.m.
Updated: December 21, 2010 4:55 a.m.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Officials agreed Monday to nearly double the length of the first segment of California’s planned high-speed rail line to allay concerns that the initial route will not reach major population centers in the Central Valley.

Six members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously to spend an additional $616 million in federal funding to extend the segment to Bakersfield.

Earlier this month, the federal government re-allocated $1.2 billion in high-speed rail funding to California and 11 other states after Ohio and Wisconsin decided not to proceed with their rail projects. The announcement came a week after the authority board approved a staff engineers’ proposal to build the first 65 miles of an 800-mile-long, high-speed rail line through California’s agricultural core.

The sudden windfall provides the authority a total of $5.5 billion to construct up to 123 miles of track, authority CEO Roelof van Ark said. The latest round of funding must be matched by state funds.

The authority intends to build a 520-mile span tying the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and Anaheim at an estimated cost of $43 billion, van Ark said. Plans call for eventual expansions to Sacramento and San Diego.

Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean has been critical of the steel-on-steel technology the rail authority has proposed to use. A steel-on-steel train system causes friction on the train tracks that would be costly to maintain.

Japan, India and France have all invested in rail systems that use magnets to propel trains and is less costly to maintain, she said.

“There are other technologies out there that other countries and other entities are pursuing,” McLean said Monday. “I don’t know why (the rail authority) insists on steel-on-steel technology. That is an older technology.”

Santa Clarita council members raised concerns about the rail system at a special meeting in September.

Although trains are planned to travel near the Santa Clarita Valley west from a Palmdale station and roughly follow Highway 14 south through the Newhall Pass, no train stations are proposed for the SCV.

Critics had panned the first 65-mile route as the “train to nowhere” because it would start from the tiny town of Borden, connect to new stations in downtown Fresno and another one east of Hanford before ending in Corcoran, another small town.

Authority board members hoped the expansion to an Amtrak station in Bakersfield, a city of 339,000 on the southern end of the Central Valley, will put an end to critics’ derisions.

“This makes a lot more sense,” board member Lynn Schenk said. “I’m pleased that we got the money, we thank Ohio and Wisconsin greatly.”

The board picked the extension to Bakersfield over another option to go north toward Merced, 50 miles north of Fresno.
Van Ark said staff engineers were still studying several alternatives for tracks to Merced, and picking a route now would carry a risk that it would not link up with nearby freight-rail lines used by Amtrak.

The Federal Railroad Administration requires that any high-speed rail project be capable of “independent utility,” meaning that it can be used by conventional passenger rail services, should the federal funding for bullet train systems run out.
To demonstrate the authority’s commitment to expanding the route, the authority said some money will be set aside for station designs in Merced and Bakersfield.

Authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said the amount will be determined in a cooperative agreement with the FRA by the end of the month.

“High-speed rail is about interconnectivity, it’s not about building that first portion,” van Ark said. “If we only build 100 miles in the Central Valley, that is not high-speed rail.”


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