The Obama administration Wednesday gave the first formal regulatory approval to the California High-Speed Rail Authority's plan to construct a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, clearing a major legal hurdle to starting the project in the Central Valley.
The action allows the rail authority to begin acquiring the first of nearly 1,000 parcels of land that will be needed between Merced and Bakersfield to construct about 130 miles of rail by 2017, rail officials said. The deadline is a requirement of federal stimulus funding that the state has received.
"It is a very big step and a very important milestone," said Jeff Morales, chief executive of the rail authority. "It allows us to move forward in earnest."
But the decision contains a list of costly requirements, including habitat mitigation for several endangered species and abatement of diesel emissions that will occur in the Central Valley during construction. Even with the decision, the rail authority will need permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District before it puts a shovel into the ground. Those approvals would normally take six months or more, but Morales said the state is working to expedite the procedure.
The federal approvals already appear to have taken significantly longer than expected. The rail authority had said last year and earlier this year in public statements that it expected the approval to occur in June and that it hoped to begin construction before the end of this year.
Now the authority is hoping to start construction in spring 2013. The task of completing about $6 billion of work by the 2017 funding deadline would require spending $2.7 million to $3.5 million per day. Construction industry officials say that would be an aggressive plan and that every day of delay makes the job harder.
Morales said the project remains on schedule and the extra time needed to obtain the federal approval was normal for such a large-scale and complex project.
"There was paperwork going back and forth," he said. "One depends on another. You think you have reached the finish line and then you have farther to go."
The 41-page approval, known formally as a record of decision by the Federal Railroad Administration, covers the section of track from Merced to Fresno, an area where agriculture interests are staunchly opposed.
The Madera Farm Bureau, along with other groups, has filed an environmental lawsuit and is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the project. In legal filings, it contends that the authority is harassing land owners.
Anja Raudabaugh, the farm bureau's executive director, said the rail authority will have trouble buying land in her area of the Central Valley.
"Not a single one of those landowners will be a willing seller," she said.
Morales said condemnation will be a last resort. "Every effort will be made to reach a fair and equitable settlement," he said.
Quentin Kopp, a former chairman of the rail authority and a retired judge, said despite the federal decision, "it is apparent that there are substantial legal problems" facing the project.