State rail officials say they are committed to making sure small and local businesses get a chance to help build the historic first stretches of a high-speed train system in California.

More than 800 representatives from valley businesses attended an industry forum Thursday at Fresno's Save Mart Center to learn how they can compete for some of the $6 billion that will be spent on construction of about 120 miles of high-speed rail lines from Fresno to Bakersfield.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority forum offered an opportunity for local businesses to meet potential prime contractors and state agencies and learn about opportunities to team up as subcontractors in their expertise.

"It's a great opportunity for us. We want to be involved in every aspect that we possibly can," said Christy Warner, a manager and estimator for Fresno-based Alert-O-Lite. The company sells and rents traffic-control signs, cones, barricades and other safety gear for roads and other construction projects.

Warner, who also attended a high-speed rail industry forum in Los Angeles earlier this year, said the statewide rail system represents a potential shot in the arm for her company and other small businesses up and down the valley.

"Road construction hasn't had as much money to build as in the past, and that has affected our business," Warner said. "We've had to downsize a little bit to accommodate for that."

The rail authority has a goal that 30 percent of the construction work for the proposed 520-mile system from San Francisco to Los Angeles go to small businesses or businesses that are owned by minorities, women or disabled veterans. On Thursday, authority CEO Roelof van Ark said the goal is intended to ensure that the project stimulates jobs for companies and in communities that need it most.

Van Ark said construction in the valley will generate tens of thousands of jobs.

"These jobs belong to Californians. They can't be outsourced," he said. "The jobs will go to Californians, to many of you here today."

He added that the small- and disadvantaged-business goals will be more than just window dressing on the contracts because of billions of dollars of federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"Your hiring practices will be watched closely by us at the HSRA, but there will be others watching as well," van Ark warned would-be prime contractors. "The act was put in place to assure the creation of jobs, so we expect you to take that seriously and ensure that we can bring people back into the economy."

Work could begin as soon as next summer on two preliminary projects in and near downtown Fresno. The Fresno Street undercrossing beneath the Union Pacific Railroad tracks is planned to be rebuilt and extended to run under the proposed high-speed line. And a new overpass is proposed on Church Avenue to span the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific and high-speed rail lines.

"We expect to award (contracts for) those projects in the summer, and we want to get construction started as quickly as we can," said project manager Hans Van Winkle. "We're going to have shovel-ready projects ready."

Both pieces, Van Winkle added, "will be great opportunities for small businesses."

The Fresno Street and Church Avenue contracts would come ahead of a much larger construction contract, estimated to cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, to build the line from north of the San Joaquin River through Fresno to American Avenue.

The Church Avenue project would require the relocation of one of Alert-O-Lite's two Fresno offices. But Warner said that won't dissuade the company from looking for subcontracting opportunities on the train line.

"We all have high hopes for this," she said. "It's going to bring jobs to the Fresno area and create jobs for local businesses."

Also meeting with would-be prime contractors on Thursday was Nanette Mattos of Mattos Underground Construction in Laton.

Mattos said small, local companies are more familiar with conditions in the valley and can offer that expertise as subcontractors to the larger national or international firms vying for the big contracts.

"This whole stretch of the proposed corridor is really all in our backyard," Mattos said. "We understand the soil conditions. We understand what's going on around here. I think it would really be sad if this huge, monumental thing occurred and we didn't have a part in it."

After Thursday's forum, "I saw that there is indeed a place for us as a small, family-owned business on this project."