California's controversial high-speed rail project received a boost Wednesday when the Federal Railroad Administration approved the proposed Merced-to-Fresno route, clearing the way for construction to start early next year.
A federal record of decision signed by Administrator Joseph Szabo represents the final bureaucratic hurdle for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The decision gives a federal blessing to the 60-mile route and to thousands of pages of environmental review for the project.
Backers of the project hailed the decision as historic for the development of the first high-speed train project in the nation and the start of construction in the central San Joaquin Valley. "With the federal record of decision, we are now poised to move forward and break ground next year," said Jeff Morales, the rail authority's CEO.
But the specter of lawsuits continues to hang over the project. Several have been filed against the rail authority in hopes of stalling or stopping work on the Merced-Fresno section.
The decision comes despite recent pleas from critics asking the federal authority to withhold approval based on concerns over "environmental justice" in the environmental review process, potentially in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Those concerns focused on a failure to make many environmental documents available in Spanish or other languages besides English for residents to read as well as fears that low-income and minority neighborhoods are at risk for greater effects from construction and operation of the train project.
The state rail authority approved the Merced-Fresno route in May. Federal officials had to run the plans through additional channels, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for review before they could issue their decision on the section.
The Federal Railroad Administration decision acknowledges that "communities of concern," including low-income and minority neighborhoods, are likely to experience the greatest effects from noise and having to be relocated to make way for the tracks. But it adds that steps will be taken to reduce those effects so they "will not be appreciably more severe or greater in magnitude" than for the broader Valley population.
Because minorities and low-income residents make up most of the region's population, the decision adds, "Benefits will likely accrue to a greater degree to communities of concern." Those benefits include better transportation systems, reduced traffic congestion on freeways, improved air quality and more jobs during the system's construction and operation.
"Over the next several years, this project will put thousands of Californians to work and provide the state with transportation capacity and connectivity needed for long-term economic expansion," Szabo said.