California High Speed Rail Authority / AP

California breaks ground on first US bullet train project

The $68 billion high-speed rail will take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours

Officials marked the start of work on California’s high-speed rail project, the nation’s first bullet train, which is designed to whisk travelers at 200 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. 

The ceremony in Fresno came amid challenges. Central Valley farmers in the train's path had sued to block it and are contesting that those behind the project have fallen short of responsibilities under a 2013 legal settlement, according to The Fresno Bee.

Meanwhile, Republican members of U.S. Congress have vowed to cut funding for the $68 billion project because of its expense. Opponents also say the state can't deliver the sleek project as it was first promised.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, acknowledges the authority has been slow to buy up most of the land needed for laying track. But he is confident the system will be built, making California a model for high-speed rail across the country.

"The voters are going to get exactly what they asked for," Richard said. "We have never, ever stepped away from that vision, not one inch."

To make way for tracks, some demolition started last year in Fresno. But officials say work this year will be more intensive along the project's first segment — a 28-mile stretch from Fresno north to Madera. A second phase of work will occur along the 114 miles from Fresno south to Bakersfield. Plans call for completing the first 520 miles linking San Francisco and the Los Angeles Basin by 2029.

The United States lags Europe and Asia in building high-speed rails. In its annual report on global competitiveness, for example, the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 12th in terms of infrastructure, behind Japan, Germany, France and Spain. President Barack Obama wanted high-speed rail to be his signature transportation accomplishment. But plans have lagged or been squashed since he took office.

California's rail project has been mired in environmental lawsuits and eminent domain land disputes. The 800-mile high-speed rail is expected to be the legacy project for Gov. Jerry Brown, whose unprecedented fourth inauguration took place on Sunday.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has enjoyed victories in recent months. One of seven environmental lawsuits was settled in December, after the rail authority agreed to find an alternative route through Bakersfield. In October the California Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit challenging the project's funding. Californians in 2008 approved a nearly $10 billion bond for the project, and in 2012 the Obama administration dedicated $3.3 billion in stimulus funds.

Bullet train systems in other countries generate revenue. And California officials are banking on the state’s project to entice private investment as well as generate money from advertising and development around the stations. Officials say that design and planning already have created 632 jobs and that the workforce will rise to 20,000 over the next five years.

The state legislature recently agreed to pledge to the project 25 percent of future cap-and-trade revenues, funds paid by companies to offset carbon emissions, plus an additional $650 million. California has raised nearly $1 billion from its cap-and-trade program since 2013. That money could increase significantly next year as the program expands to cover distributors of transportation fuels such as gasoline and diesel and home heating fuels like natural gas. Still, it is unlikely to cover the full cost of the project.

Rep. Jeff Denham, a Central Valley Republican and an outspoken critic of high-speed rail, vows to block any federal money for the trains because he doesn't believe they will be as fast or carry as many riders as initially promised. Without funding, he said, the project won't move beyond an initial stretch in the Central Valley.

"It's hard to celebrate breaking ground on what is likely to become abandoned pieces of track that never connect to a usable segment," he said.

But Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, said she backs the rail system. In addition to putting construction workers on the job in the short term, she said, the rail project will connect the Central Valley agricultural region with other sectors of the state's economy.

"We're stuck right in the middle, and it's difficult to get in and out," she said. "It fills a deficit for Central California."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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