By Ralph Vartabedian
California's bullet train agency won a key legal ruling Thursday, obtaining an exemption from regulatory oversight by the federal Surface Transportation Board for construction of the first segment of the rail system that would run 220 mph trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
The ruling is among several barriers it has successfully navigated in the long-sought start of construction, though the state still must secure a deal with powerful freight railroads, obtain a key permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and prevail in a lawsuit that alleges the rail plan violates a 2008 voter-approved bond measure. The rail authority has yet to buy any parcels of land and may face considerable delays in fighting angry farmers for land in the Central Valley.
But over the last year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has weathered hostile congressional hearings, legal challenges, allegations of a flawed contracting process and eroding public support in its drive to begin construction of the $68-billion system. It is in the final stages of signing a contract with Sylmar-based Tutor Perini to build 29 miles of bridges, tunnels and rail bed through Fresno, a deal worth $985 million.
The exemption by the Surface Transportation Board is among the most important victories the state has secured. An adverse ruling could have resulted in lengthy bureaucratic delays and extensive reviews of the project by federal regulators.
"We welcome this decision and will continue to work with the Surface Transportation Board on the implementation of the nation's first high-speed rail program," said Jeff Morales, the state's rail authority chief executive. "We can now focus on starting major work on the project this summer and providing thousands of jobs in the Central Valley."
The ruling was largely expected by political observers. The federal board consists of three presidential appointees, two Democrats and one Republican. Legislative debate on the project has tended to split along party lines, with Democrats and the Obama administration supporting the project and Republicans sharply criticizing it. Indeed, the review by the Surface Transportation Board was requested by Rep. Jeff Denham, the Central Valley Republican who chairs the House rail subcommittee.
Denham said Thursday that the exemption "is unprecedented and ignores the scope of the project, the impact on taxpayers and the variable nature of the Authority's construction plans. Unfortunately, it seems the [federal transportation board] is bending over backwards to hastily meet the Authority's and Administration's self-inflicted tight deadlines. Valley residents deserve a transparent process and have the right to know all the details before the project begins."
Though the board endorsed the merits of the bullet train project, Thursday's 29-page decision was largely a legal analysis of whether an exemption was permissable under federal law. The new ruling still supports the validity of federal jurisdiction over the project but grants an exemption from a full review for an initial, 65-mile segment to be built between Merced to Fresno.
The board, a successor entity to the once powerful Interstate Commerce Commission, agreed with supporters that the bullet train would provide legitimate transportation service to the public.
"The Project has logical end points in Merced and Fresno and would provide transportation benefits to the rapidly growing Central Valley and beyond, even without the construction of additional facilities," it said.
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