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California High-Speed Rail Officials Say Plan On Schedule

SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — The board that oversees California's embattled $68 billion high-speed rail project decided Thursday to try again to gain blanket authority to sell $8.6 billion in state bonds, after a judge blocked the bond sales last week in one of several recent setbacks for the project.

The ruling by the Sacramento County judge prevented the state from selling construction bonds for the project and ordered the California High-Speed Rail Authority to write a new funding plan. He also ordered the authority to have all environmental clearances in place for the first 300 miles of track in the Central Valley.

Board members met in closed session Thursday to discuss the judge's rulings, as well as a federal agency's decision Wednesday that complicates the project. In that decision, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a request to exempt a segment of the planned high-speed rail line in the Central Valley from a lengthy planning review.

Board Chairman Dan Richard says members agreed Thursday to refile a so-called validation action seeking state permission to sell the bonds that voters approved in 2008.

"The judge said, 'You guys didn't put enough information on the record,'" Richard told reporters after the meeting. "The easiest thing in the world to do is to go back and put more information on the record."

Richard said no other decisions were made on how to respond to the judge's rulings and he declined to discuss the board's deliberations.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny last week ordered the agency to redo its funding plan and to ensure that all environmental clearances are in place for the first 300 miles of the project, a process that could take months or years.

Rail authority officials say rewriting the funding plan shouldn't take that long, although they have not directly addressed how long it would take to get environmental approval for the full 300 miles.

In the meantime, rail officials are spending up to $3.3 billion in federal money to start engineering work on the first section of track, a 28-mile segment that will run from Merced to Fresno. The federal money is contingent upon eventual state matching funds.

Officials hope to start construction in January or February after pushing back the timeline from last July. Richard said Thursday that he anticipates the federal money will last through late spring.

A day earlier, the three-member Surface Transportation Board said state officials had not presented any compelling reason why conditional approval should be given before an environmental impact review is completed.

The decision could force a delay in designing and building a five-mile stretch of the route in Fresno. However, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said no delays were anticipated.

"With their decision today, the board opted for the same process used in their approval of the Merced to Fresno project section, and all of our ongoing work and contracts proceed as they have been," said Jeff Morales, chief executive of the rail authority.

The bullet train project envisions running trains from Los Angeles to San Francisco by about 2028. The federal board approved the Merced to Fresno portion of the rail line earlier this year after it underwent environmental review, and state officials awarded a $1 billion construction contract for its first segment.

But without the board's support for the remaining five-mile section, the contract will likely have to be renegotiated, state officials said. The federal board's vice chairwoman, Ann Begeman, called for an analysis of the project's "financial fitness."

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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