Feds approve first leg of Calif. high-speed rail

Associated Press Modified: September 19, 2012 at 5:00 pm •  Published: September 19, 2012

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Federal Railroad Administration gave its approval Wednesday for construction on the first phase of California's high-speed rail system, clearing the final technical hurdle for construction to start next year on a 65-mile span from Merced to Fresno.

The decision supports the California High-Speed Rail Authority's so-called hybrid alternative, which state officials say is the least costly approach and the one that is least harmful to the environment. Rail authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales said the federal decision will allow the project to break ground next year.

"This is now a statewide rail modernization plan which will not only deliver high-speed rail but also will invest billions of dollars of improvements to local and regional rail systems around the state immediately," Morales said.

Federal officials reviewed the plan to ensure compliance with dozens of federal regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations and the National Historic Preservation Act. The plan also requires the rail authority to provide financial compensation for environmental damage such as increased pollution or harm to wetlands and water sources.

Lawmakers approved the first phase of the planned 800-mile line this summer, allowing the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in bonds for construction of the initial 130-mile segment of the bullet train in the Central Valley. It also allowed the state to tap $3.2 billion from the federal government.

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