Federal agency approves plans for second leg of California's bullet train, but hurdles remain


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SACRAMENTO, California — The U.S. Department of Transportation gave its approval Friday for work to begin on the second leg of California's proposed $68 billion high-speed rail line, endorsing the state's environmental review for the section running between Fresno and Bakersfield.

The decision allows the state to begin acquiring land along the 114-mile route, although the state is still waiting for approval from the federal Surface Transportation Board before it can begin construction on this segment.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority asked the board to issue a decision by the end of the summer.

Friday's announcement was expected, but it is "another sign that we're moving in the right direction," rail authority spokeswoman Lisa-Marie Alley said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx calls it a "major step forward" for high-speed rail in the U.S.

All agencies have already signed off on the first leg, a 28-mile segment between Madera and Fresno. But the project has been slowed by legal hurdles, including a court ruling that has prevented the state from selling $8.6 billion in bonds.

State officials say they are spending federal money while that decision is appealed, which includes buying land and doing construction testing.

Earlier this month, the state Legislature approved Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to give high-speed rail $250 million from the state's pollution fees in the upcoming fiscal year. In the future, the project will receive a quarter of the program's revenue as part of an effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the Central Valley.

That sparked a new lawsuit this week from a San Rafael-based group that alleges the state Air Resources Board downplayed the harmful effects of high-speed rail construction on the environment and exaggerated the potential environmental benefits to allow the bullet train to be eligible for the funding.

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