Capitol Alert

AM Alert: Brown, others to break ground on California’s high-speed rail project

This image provided by the California High Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's rendering of a high-speed train speeding along the California coast. (AP Photo/California High Speed Rail Authority)
This image provided by the California High Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's rendering of a high-speed train speeding along the California coast. (AP Photo/California High Speed Rail Authority) AP

California’s high-speed rail project finally leaves the station today. But how far will it go?

Amid ongoing court challenges, funding uncertainties and sharp divisions among the state’s politicians, the bullet train system will chug into the dirt-moving phase with a noontime ceremonial groundbreaking in Fresno attended by Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, labor leaders and 1,200 other bullet train backers.

The ceremony will commemorate the first phase of the estimated $68 billion project, which the Democratic governor has championed since returning to the governor’s office in 2011. He highlighted it again this week during his speech launching a historic fourth term.

Today’s ceremony will be at the site for Fresno’s proposed downtown station. The area is along the project’s first phase, a 29-mile stretch from Madera to the southern edge of Fresno, where planners and construction crews will iron out wrinkles before linking the system, and its 220-mph trains, to much denser population centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The groundbreaking comes decades after backers first proposed a high-speed network for the state, and more than six years after voters narrowly approved Proposition 1A to help pay for the project. Earlier plans called for construction to begin in 2012, but bidding delays and challenges acquiring land contributed to postpone the start of sustained construction.

The state has won several challenges of the project’s environmental reviews and whether it met the requirements of the 2008 ballot measure. But court fights will continue to dog the project.

And while Gina McCarthy’s presence Tuesday makes clear the Obama administration’s endorsement of the bullet train network, any significant federal money for the project in the coming years seems even more unlikely now that both houses of Congress are solidly under Republican control. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (no relation to the EPA director) said the project isn’t financially viable and predicts it will peter out in the Central Valley.

“Sometimes it shows greater leadership when someone can look at a problem and say … ‘This won’t pan out; I am going to have to change course,’” McCarthy recently said of Brown. “And I think that would be the best option knowing financially where we are in California.”

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MORE OATHS: If you didn’t get enough swearing-in ceremonies Monday, you’re in luck. Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma is scheduled to take the oath of office in San Francisco at 11 a.m. Fellow San Franciscan Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, will be in Los Angeles for a southland swearing-in at YouTube Space LA.

DROUGHT WATCH: It was barely mentioned in Brown’s State of the State address, but California’s ongoing drought will be a focus at today’s meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board. Members will receive an update on emergency water conservation efforts through November.

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.

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