A Train to Nowhere?

Is it -- or is it not-- a train track to nowhere?

That question is at the center of a controversial vote in California on whether to begin construction of the state's first high speed passenger train, which will be funded by $4 billion of stimulus money that, if gone unused, would have been returned to the federal government.

On Thursday, the seven members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board unanimously green-lighted a plan to build one stage of the high-speed railway, which involves building two new stations, acquiring rights of way, constructing viaducts and building rail bridges.

What's missing from the approved 65-mile section? Maintenance facilities, locomotives, passenger cars and the electrical system needed to power high-speed trains, notes the Los Angeles Times.

That means bullet trains won't travel on the tracks until more funding is secured. In a state with a $25.4 billion deficit, there is no clear plan on how it will pay for the rest of the $43 billion rail project.

What's more, critics question the geographical location of the line (see map here), which runs through the agricultural regions of Central Valley California, connecting the unincorporated community of Borden to Corcoran, population 25,000.

California congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., has nicknamed the project the "train to nowhere," and preferred earlier versions of the plan, which connected sections of California that are more densely populated.

Arguing that the line would be more useful if it linked the cities of Fresno and Merced, Stockton Mayor Mary Ann Johnson said she preferred connecting "two known cities that have universities associated with them, that already have some rail connections."

Facing an expiration date for the federal dollars, board members said their decision optimizes use of available money and can still be used by Amtrak even if the entire 800-mile system is not completed.

Still, supporters insist approval of the partial track should be understood within their big picture vision for high-speed rail in California.

"We are building a statewide system. We're in the business of connecting major metropolitan centers across our state, and we won't have a true high-speed rail system until we tie every part of this state together," said the board's Vice Chair Tom Umberg. "It's not one town or one region versus another; it's about connecting one region to another. ‘'

Supporters estimate the project could create up to 80,000 jobs in an economically depressed region of the state.

"This project will put a lot of my people to work," said Don Savory, Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer of Ironworkers Local 155. "We need the jobs here. And by beginning this project from Madera to Corcoran, California will get even more bang for the buck. Most of my workers are based in Fresno, so we won't need to pay travel or subsistence costs. They'll be close to home."

Some GOP members of Congress have called for the return of unspent stimulus dollars, and the Republican governors-elect of Ohio and Wisconsin have said they want to return their high speed rail funds.

"Other states are shrinking from the challenge of high-speed rail. In California, we're rising to meet it," Umberg said. "And we're sending a clear signal to Washington -- we're ready to put those dollars to use."

Construction is expected to begin in 2012 and finish in 2017 after environmental reviews are conducted.