Grant aims to get California bullet train moving in 2012

A big federal grant could mean that California's high-speed passenger rail system will begin construction in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Monday announced that the Federal Rail Administration had allocated $715 million specifically for building the first portion of the system in the Central Valley.

But California's High-Speed Rail Authority is still weeks from officially choosing which segment will be built first, and state officials appeared to be taken off-guard by Costa's announcement.

Critics questioned timing of the announcement — barely a week before Costa faces voters in a tough re-election bid.

The money is part of more than $902 million in the latest round of federal funds for futuristic bullet trains to speed passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles — and through the Valley — at speeds of up to 220 mph.

"This will begin the first phase of construction of state-of-the-art high-speed rail in our nation" between Merced and Bakersfield, Costa said in a news conference at downtown Fresno's Amtrak station.

Earlier this year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority received more than $2 billion in federal stimulus funds for its high-speed rail program, and in August applied for more. With the addition of this round of money, and matching funds from a high-speed rail bond approved by California voters in 2008, the authority will have more than $4 billion available to start construction on the first piece of the system.

Construction could begin by 2012.

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