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Governor signs law to make California home to nation's first truly high-speed rail

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu July 19, 2012
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks Wednesday in Los Angeles before signing a bill to create a high-speed rail project.
California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks Wednesday in Los Angeles before signing a bill to create a high-speed rail project.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The world standard for high-speed rail is 186 mph to 220 mph, industry experts say
  • The California project will be the only U.S. line reaching those speeds, officials say
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill funding the first leg of high-speed rail line
  • The new line eventually will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco

Los Angeles (CNN) -- California is poised to become home to the nation's first truly high-speed rail system with Gov. Jerry Brown's signing Wednesday of a law authorizing the first leg of construction for a line that will eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.

California will issue $2.6 billion in bonds, with the federal government providing an additional $3.2 billion, to build the initial segment of the high-speed rail between Merced and the San Fernando Valley on the north side of Los Angeles, officials said.

The high-speed rail project was part of a transportation bill signed by Brown that calls for general improvements to the state's rail system involving a total of $4.7 billion in state funding matched with $7.9 billion in federal and local funds, officials said.

"This legislation will help put thousands of people in California back to work," Brown said at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, according to a news release. "By improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work."

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The California High-Speed Rail Authority says the rail line initially will allow passengers to zip between San Francisco and Los Angeles via the Central Valley in two hours and 40 minutes.

The line is envisioned to carry travelers between Los Angeles and San Diego in 80 minutes and, in the northern part of the state, will eventually connect to Sacramento, the authority said. In all, the 800 miles of track will include up to 24 stations, the authority said.

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said the California high-speed train will travel at 220 mph.

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"California will be home to the nation's first true high-speed rail," Kunz told CNN. "True high-speed rails around the world are running between 186 miles an hour to 220 miles an hour. That's pretty much the standard in the world."

The closest speed to the California project is Amtrak's Acela Express in the Northeast, which averages 80 mph between New York City and Washington, D.C., but reaches 150 mph for a few miles near Boston, Kunz said. That line is not built on a dedicated high-speed track as California's line will be, he said.

"California leads the way for many new things in this country, whether it's organic food or high technology or filmmaking. This will be the chance for California to lead the nation in transportation as well," he said.

High-speed rail isn't vulnerable to the rising global fuel prices that afflict the airline industry, and it will relieve highway gridlock, he said.

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"High speed is the only thing coming over the horizon that can actually give us a better future," said Kunz, whose nonprofit trade association seeks a 17,000-mile national high-speed rail system by 2030.

Joseph Shelhorse, the association's vice president of business development, said his group is working with developers on private-public partnerships to build high-speed track beds in exchange for real estate development rights above and around high-speed train stations -- much as the U.S. government under President Abraham Lincoln did for the first transcontinental railroad.

The California project, however, has had its share of critics, including John Tos, an almond farmer.

"We want them to stay off the land. It is not our intention to allow this to happen through our property. We farmed here for a reason, the tranquility of it all. This is farming country. And we want to keep it like that," he said earlier this year.

Other critics are concerned about the potential for cost overruns, and question the project's timing given the economic slump. Joe Simitian, a Democratic state senator, was among those who voted against the bill.

"The question we have to ask ourselves today is -- even if you support the vision -- is this a plan that is worthy of our support?" he said during debate.

President Barack Obama is a big supporter of high-speed rail. His administration has proposed spending $53 billion on a national high-speed rail network, while he has set the goal of giving 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.

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