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article imageCalifornia finally gets started on new high-speed rail system

By Nathan Salant     Jan 7, 2015 in Environment
Fresno - California's controversial $68 billion high-speed rail project kicked off Tuesday, as political leaders gathered in Fresno for an hour-long ceremony featuring speeches and ceremonial rail-signings.
But the seeming joviality of the ceremonies belied the bruising political maneuvering that took decades to get to the point where construction of a 140-mile section of the 520-mile line is ready to begin.
California voters approved the rail project, one of the largest public infrastructure projects ever in the United States, by passing a $10 billion bond issue in 2008, and the federal government authorized $3 billion in stimulus funds in 2012.
Supporters, who include California Gov. Jerry Brown, tout the project's positive effect on the environment, since the all-electric train system will result in fewer cars on the state's highways and reduce the number of greenhouse gas-generating planes flying between Northern and Southern California.
Proponents estimate the high-speed train could make the more-than 300-mile trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
But completion of the line is years away and still tens of billions of dollars short.
Project opponents also complain about the amount of Central Valley farmland that will be seized by the government and turned over to the project and say it is far too expensive to make economic sense.
But negative sentiments were in short supply Tuesday at project proponents celebrated its start.
"High-speed rail is good for our health, it is good for our climate and it is good for our economy," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said Tuesday in an existing Fresno railyard where the first station is expected to be constructed.
The first section of the new rail line will go from Fresno to Madera, followed by an extension from Fresno to Bakersfield.
The line is planned to eventually connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, followed by an extension to San Diego.
Brown said high-speed rail is essential to California being able to get half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
"It's not that expensive, we can afford it," the governor said at the ceremony.
"In fact, we cannot not afford it," he said.
Brown and McCarthy were joined by mayors of cities affected by the project, including Fresno Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, who said she was behind the project because it will create thousands of jobs and help connect California's geographically far-flung communities.
"It fills a deficit for Central California," she said.
Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the new line will initially use existing freight tracks but eventually build its own tracks.
"Voters are going to get exactly what they asked for," Richard said.
But some of those voters disagreed loudly Tuesday, as a small group of demonstrators shouting "show me the money" gathered nearby.
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