The staff recommendation, which the rail authority's board of directors is scheduled to consider on Dec. 2 (after the Voice goes to press), also calls for construction of two high-speed rail stations — one in downtown Fresno and another one east of Hanford. Staff estimates the segment to cost about $4.15 billion.
The rail authority decided earlier this month to begin construction of the rail line in Central Valley — a decision driven by a Federal Railroad Administration grant that earmarked $715 million for this region. The rail authority was widely expected to choose either the Fresno-to-Merced or the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment as the first piece of the project.
Instead, staff is now recommending that the project kick off with a 65-mile segment that begins just south of Madera (about 40 miles southeast of Merced) and ends at Corcoran, between Fresno and Bakersfield. The staff report claims the route would give the rail authority the "flexibility to build in either direction — north and west to the Bay Area or south to Los Angeles — as more federal dollars become available."
The recommendation has already run into intense opposition from one Central Valley lawmaker. U.S. Congressman Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat whose district includes Merced and parts of Fresno and Madero counties, immediately blasted the recommendation, calling it a "fundamentally flawed" choice and a case of "Thanksgiving Day fraud" by the rail authority.
"The authority staff has never vetted the Corcoran-to-Borden route with the public, and instead has wasted the community's time and good will with endless public workshops and meetings on the other routes," Cardoza said in a statement just after the rail authority announced the staff recommendation. "This deceit harms the long-standing trust and support that the Merced community and others in the Northern Valley have provided.
"This will completely undermine future support of the project," he added.
The high-speed rail line, for which California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond in 2008, is slated to ultimately stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the authority estimates that the project will cost about $43 billion and it's not clear where the rest of the money will come from.
The estimated price tag for the Borden-to-Corcoran segment is $4.15 billion. If future funding doesn't materialize, the authority would connect this segment to existing rail service.
In November, the authority decided to delay its environmental analyses for the Peninsula segment of the line because of the recent decision to begin construction in Central Valley.