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Feds approve first leg of high-speed rail
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — The Federal Railroad Administration gave its approval Wednesday for construction on the first phase of California's high-speed rail system, clearing the final technical hurdle for construction to start next year on a 65-mile span from Merced to Fresno.

The decision supports the California High-Speed Rail Authority's so-called hybrid alternative, which state officials say is the least costly approach and the one that is least harmful to the environment. Rail authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales said the federal decision will allow the project to break ground next year.

"This is now a statewide rail modernization plan which will not only deliver high-speed rail but also will invest billions of dollars of improvements to local and regional rail systems around the state immediately," Morales said.

Federal officials reviewed the plan to ensure compliance with dozens of federal regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations and the National Historic Preservation Act. The plan also requires the rail authority to provide financial compensation for environmental damage such as increased pollution or harm to wetlands and water sources.

Lawmakers approved the first phase of the planned 800-mile line this summer, allowing the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in bonds for construction of the initial 130-mile segment of the bullet train in the Central Valley. It also allowed the state to tap $3.2 billion from the federal government.

The total cost of the project that would eventually connect Northern and Southern California is at least $68 billion.

The project still faces significant legal challenges that could delay next year's planned construction start. Groups representing Central Valley farmers claim in lawsuits that the state failed to conduct thorough environmental reviews, as required by California law.

"We're not seeking necessarily to stop the project entirely, but we do think the project should be stopped until some of these environmental issues, and their severity, are addressed," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau.

The bureau is among the groups that last week petitioned Sacramento County Superior Court for a preliminary injunction that would speed up hearings on their claims.

Voters approved issuing $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, but public support for the plan has dwindled in recent years as the project's expected costs have soared.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, remains a champion of the project.