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Next Section Of High-Speed Rail Approved While Board Awaits Bond Sale Appeal

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – The board that oversees California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project voted Wednesday to unanimously adopt a planned route for its second and most substantial section to date, a 114-mile stretch between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Meeting in Fresno, the board voted 7-0 to approve a 20,000-page environmental planning document, sending the next phase of the project on for federal review.

Wednesday’s approval represents a significant step in the planning for the project, which has been stalled repeatedly by unfavorable legal rulings, delays in acquiring land in the Central Valley, and a lack of funding. Engineering work has started on the first, much shorter section, a 30-mile segment from Merced to Fresno.

The environmental document includes plans to address air quality during construction, add green space to compensate for damaged habitat and prevent the spread of the highly contagious fungal disease known as Valley fever. The complex review is required to comply with state and federal environmental laws and has been in the works since 2011.

The selected route goes from downtown Fresno, around Hanford, where local criticism of the project has been the strongest, and stops just north of Bakersfield for now, after city officials raised concerns about a downtown station that would encroach on historic properties.

Despite the length of the report and a 4,800-page response to comments from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, critics of the project said many of their concerns were not addressed in the final report. They also criticized the board for giving the public three weeks to respond and for failing to include 35 letters from the public when the report was posted online, which authority officials called “a clerical error.”

The board held a two-day meeting to allow for more Central Valley residents to attend, many of whom complained about the harm to or loss of their property because of the bullet train.

“This project is being rushed. Rushed equates to more litigation and less quality,” said Colleen Carlson, counsel for Kings County. The county, which includes the city of Hanford, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that argues the high-speed rail project’s current plans do not comply with the promises made to voters when they approved selling $10 billion in bonds for it in 2008.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge’s ruling that sided with the plaintiffs has blocked the state from selling $8.6 billion in bonds for the project, raising concerns that the state will not be able to meet its commitment to match some $3.3 billion in federal funding. The state’s appeal of that ruling will be heard in court later this month.

Board Chairman Dan Richard said he feels “a huge sense of responsibility” to the farmers and landowners he has met in the Central Valley.

“We have to make a decision about whether or not there are larger superseding benefits and value that this decision would bring not only to this community, but to the state as a whole,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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