California's high-speed rail project endured another setback Tuesday when a federal oversight board denied the rail authority's request for a conditional decision on the Fresno-Bakersfield route before environmental work was completed.
Earlier this year, the three-member Surface Transportation Board approved the Merced-Fresno portion of the rail line, and the state awarded a contract for its first 29-mile construction segment in August.
But the southernmost five miles of that $1 billion contract is in the Fresno-Bakersfield section, for which environmental work has yet to be completed.
The STB's decision, which was released Wednesday, likely means a delay in designing and building of that five-mile stretch of the route between downtown Fresno and the southern edge of the city.
The entire Fresno-Bakersfield route is 114 miles.
Representatives of the California High-Speed Rail Authority have previously said they anticipate adopting a final environmental report for the Fresno-Bakersfield section next spring.
The state rail authority had asked the STB to conditionally authorize construction, "subject to the entry of a final decision after completion of environmental review" by the state rail agency and the Federal Railroad Administration.
It also wanted a decision by Dec. 31 because "there is a possibility that the (federal) board will have a vacancy as of January 1, 2014."
The state said in its request that if it cannot issue a notice for the contractor to begin work south of downtown Fresno by July 2014, that section would be removed from the first construction contract. That, in turn, would force the state rail agency to renegotiate the price for the first 24 miles north of Fresno, and negotiate a separate contract for the southernmost five miles, potentially creating "a substantial aggregate increase in the cost of construction" for the two sections.
But in its decision, STB members said the state "has not presented any unique or compelling circumstances" that require conditional approval before the environmental work is completed.
"The fact that the authority contractually agreed to notify its contractor by a certain date that construction can proceed is not a sufficient basis for the Board to carry out its independent statutory obligation in a piecemeal fashion," read the decision. "Moreover, no construction may begin until after the environmental review is completed and the board issues its final decision."
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, quickly issued a statement on the board's denial of the state's request. "The STB ruling is another major blow in a series of setbacks to the California project," said Denham, a vocal critic of the state rail authority.
Denham noted that the decision comes on the heels of court rulings in Sacramento that require the rail agency to re-do its finance and business plan to comply with Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.