Politics & Government

California high-speed rail gets $368 million boost from Obama

WASHINGTON — California's high-speed rail plans picked up more momentum Monday, as the Obama administration announced an additional $368 million to boost rail travel through the Central Valley.

The grant includes $300 million to stretch the initial high-speed rail route from Bakersfield closer toward Merced, and $68 million to purchase more conventional rail equipment.

"This is great news for Californians," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared.

California's share is part of $2 billion newly awarded by the Transportation Department as a result of Florida rejecting the high-speed rail funds. Other regions got more than California, which had shot the moon and requested Florida's entire $2 billion.

Instead, the Amtrak Northeast Corridor on Monday received an additional $795 million grant Monday, while a Midwestern corridor received $404 million to boost service between Chicago and Detroit and St. Louis.

"These projects will put thousands of Americans to work, save hundreds of thousands of hours for American travelers every year, and boost U.S. manufacturing," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

The California money will enable the state to extend its high-speed rail route an additional 20 miles. Transportation Department officials said Monday this will "take the track and civil work from Fresno to the 'Wye' junction" near Chowchilla.

California High-Speed Rail Authority officials elaborated that the new Y-shaped high-speed rail junction "will provide a connection to San Jose and San Francisco to the west and Merced and ultimately Sacramento to the north."

"It is clear that the federal government understands the importance of connecting Northern and Southern California with a more efficient, more convenient, and least costly new mode of transportation," Roelof van Ark, the chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in a statement.

Starting in January 2010, using a combination of stimulus package dollars and Fiscal 2010 funds, the Obama administration has awarded California $3.48 billion for high-speed rail work. The state has kicked in several billion dollars in matching funds.

"In the past 15 months, we have won the lion's share of federal dollars," crowed Curt Pringle, chairman of the state's high-speed rail authority.

The separate $68 million federal grant announced Monday will help the state buy 15 passenger rail cars and four locomotives for use on the Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and Capitol Corridors.

The new locomotives will be able to travel at speeds up to 125 mph. When constructed, California's high-speed rail line is supposed to offer train speeds up to 220 miles per hour.

Feinstein and her colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, had helped urge the Transportation Department to steer more high-speed rail dollars toward California, as had many of the state's House members.

When complete, California officials envision an 800-mile rail system connecting San Diego and Los Angeles to Sacramento and San Francisco. The phase connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim is projected to cost $43 billion.

Critics, including a number of congressional Republicans, consider the ambitious plan a taxpayer-subsidized problem in the making. "The project has lacked adequate cost controls, the transparency our Valley farmers deserve and the oversight our taxpayers demand," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, declared earlier this year.

Denham and other Central Valley Republicans, including House majority whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Bakersfield, are backing a signal-sending bill that would permit California to shift the high-speed rail funds into highway improvements along State Route 99 between Sacramento and Bakersfield.

Citing their own potential problems, GOP governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejected federal high-speed rail funds.

Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak submitted nearly 100 applications for the money made available by Florida's decision.

In Congress, lawmakers cut high-speed rail funds from the Fiscal 2011 budget. The money announced Monday comes from a separate stimulus package unaffected by the congressional budget-cutting.

"Building a high-speed rail system in California is a marathon, not a sprint," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Construction is supposed to start next year.