SACRAMENTO — Rejecting a growing tide of criticism in favor of engineering and funding concerns, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to kick off construction of the project with a $4.15 billion, 65-mile segment that straddles Fresno but stops well before reaching Kern County.

The board’s decision to approve its staff’s recommendation and build a route linking the small communities of Borden and Corcoran drew immediate criticism from a Kern County contingent that had pushed for a 90-mile, $3.5 billion alternative that would have linked downtown Bakersfield to a point just south of Fresno.

“I think the decision by the authority severely imperils the completion of the system because they’re suggesting building a segment that is not serviceable,” county Supervisor Mike Maggard said after the board’s vote. He said the selected link would make Congress and the private sector hesitant to invest in the project.

But board members emphasized that their goal was to build only the first part of an 800-mile system. They said building from Borden to Corcoran closely matches the authority’s existing budget while also allowing convenient expansion of the project north and south. Building south from Bakersfield is not currently an option, they said, because the necessary environmental review is years away.

Mindful of growing public skepticism of the staff proposal, board Vice Chairman Thomas Umberg opened the meeting with a reminder that the location of the initial segment would in no way define the overall system.

“Wherever we begin is not our end point,” he told an audience of more than 200 people gathered in Sacramento City Council Chambers.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, concurred in a written statement: “As the people of California know, building the state’s high-speed rail project is a long-term process. The system will be built in phases and improvements will be made along the way.”

What’s next

Construction of the first segment is expected to create some 80,000 jobs when it begins in 2012 following an environmental review and contract bidding. The segment is scheduled to be completed in 2017. By 2020 the passenger rail system is expected to link Anaheim with the Bay Area, and may ultimately extend to Sacramento and San Diego.

The rail authority emphasized that the route selected Thursday would have no bearing on where it would build a lucrative train maintenance facility coveted by Kern County and other communities in the valley. That decision could be years away, rail authority staff have said.

The rail authority said the $4.15 billion expenditure approved Thursday would cover the cost of building two new stations, viaducts and bridges. It would also allow the authority to acquire rights of way, relocate existing railways and utilities and realign roadways, the authority said.

Hoping to reassure Kern and Merced counties that they will eventually be linked to the rail system, board member Rod Diridon Sr. made a motion that among other things would have set aside $4 million to begin design and engineering work on high-speed train stations in Bakersfield and Merced. He withdrew and postponed the motion upon learning that the board could not take action on it because it was not on the meeting agenda.

Critics, supporters

Many of the public comments preceding the board’s decision were critical of the staff recommendation.

Some argued that the staff proposal would miss an opportunity to reach larger populations to the north and south. Others said the recommendation could violate a federal funding requirement that the proposed segment be independently operational in case no further money can be found to complete the system.

“It’s a crazy idea,” said Richard Tolmach, president of the nonprofit California Rail Foundation, which advocates for expansion of the state’s public transportation services. He said that because the first segment would pay for no cars or electrification, it would fuel skepticism, especially among congressional Republicans trying to stop the costly project.

“You guys are gonna be a laughingstock in Congress,” Tolmach said.

But some members of the public, including politicians representing cities and counties across the valley, voiced support for the staff recommendation, noting that the project has to start somewhere, and that once it does, it will create jobs.

“This is a good decision,” said Steve Geil, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County.

Criticism of the staff recommendation that led to Thursday’s vote has mounted since authority staff unveiled their recommendation the day before Thanksgiving. Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, called it a “Thanksgiving Day Fraud” and “the High Speed Train to Nowhere.”

Some authority board members acknowledged at Thursday’s meeting that the Borden-to-Corcoran route appears to go against “common sense,” and they discussed choosing the alternative that would have extended to Bakersfield, if only to win public support for the overall rail project.

“We now have the opportunity to rebuild trust and rebuild credibility,” board Vice Chairwoman Lynn Schenk said.

In the end, however, the board sided with its engineering staff and project manager. Saying they had spent days studying and asking questions about the staff recommendation, several board members pointed to constraints imposed by federal officials, including requirements that the first segment’s $3 billion in federal money be dedicated to a single segment in the Central Valley. They also noted the Federal Railroad Administration’s insistence that the initial leg of the project be independently operational in case no further money becomes available to finish the rail system.

If that were to happen, the selected route would tie in to an existing stretch of rail used by Amtrak, reducing passengers’ travel time through the valley.

Maggard, the county supervisor, said he doubted there would be enough money to hook up the segment with Amtrak’s existing route.

“It will go nowhere,” he said. “It won’t connect.”

But a rail authority official said that, as part of planning for a worst-case scenario, money had already been budgeted to link the first segment to Amtrak, and that doing so would significantly reduce passengers’ travel time.

Money questions

There remain questions about whether the rail authority will get all the money it needs to build the rest of the system. California voters, in 2008, approved the sale of $9.95 billion in bonds to support the $43 billion project. The authority is also looking to the federal government for another $16 billion or so, and they hope to raise at least $10 billion from the private sector.

Also, a bill with Republican backing in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to reclaim still-unspent federal stimulus dollars. If its passes, the bill would take away about $2 billion in money now dedicated to the first segment of California's high-speed rail project.

Meanwhile, some congressional Democrats from California have asked the Obama administration to give the rail authority stimulus money turned away by other states with high-speed rail proposals.