Job-creation advocates in Fresno said they moved a step closer Wednesday to ensuring that local workers who need a job can compete for one building California's high-speed rail system.

Their hopes were boosted during the California High-Speed Rail Authority meeting in Sacramento, where bullet-train planners also took their first step to reducing their system's footprint on agriculture -- approving a $20 million effort to compensate for farmland lost to the railroad right of way.

Representatives from Fresno Works, a coalition of local government and business leaders, pitched a proposal Wednesday to establish a "national targeted hiring initiative." The program would put a premium on contractors to hire workers who live in communities with high rates of long-term unemployment or other economic hardship, or workers who are considered economically disadvantaged -- homeless, single parents who have custody of their children, chronically unemployed or other qualifying factors.

In reports done last year, the rail authority estimated that at the peak of building activity, about 1,300 people each year could be building the rail system in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

"We're not saying anybody should have a guaranteed job, but give people the opportunity to compete," said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board.

As proposed by Konczal, workers from extremely disadvantaged areas would have priority for 10 percent of all work hours from contractors, and disadvantaged workers could have dibs on 40 percent of the work hours.

It will be up to the rail authority to craft the actual language and priority percentages to be set in the final agreements with prime contractors. Bids to design and build the first 23-mile stretch of the rail line from Madera to downtown Fresno are due from contractors in mid-January, and a contract is expected to be awarded by mid-2013.

The rail authority gave a similar Fresno Works proposal only a lukewarm reception in January, after attorneys for the Federal Railroad Administration -- which is putting up more than $3 billion for construction in the San Joaquin Valley -- warned that federal law prohibited geographic preferences in hiring.

But Konczal told the rail authority's members that the FRA, under a new chief legal counsel, reversed its earlier objections so long as the revised initiative complies with state law. Konczal said the new plan is based very closely on a Los Angeles program that won federal approval.