SACRAMENTO — California officials on Tuesday moved toward awarding a $1.65 billion contract to design and construct the tracks and system in the central San Joaquin Valley for the first segment of its beleaguered high-speed rail project.

The action taken by the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors was a first step in moving ahead with a contract they hope to award by next summer. It’s part of the authority’s plan to get track up and running in the Valley ahead of a 2022 deadline to meet the requirements of federal grants the Trump administration is now trying to take back.

The 119-mile segment would run from Merced to Bakersfield, passing through Fresno. U.S. and international businesses can apply for the contract, and whoever wins it would be responsible for designing and building rail infrastructure, as well as maintaining it for a period that could be as long as 30 years. A U.S. subsidiary of German rail giant Deutsche Bahn AG has been awarded a $30 million contract for early operation of the trains.

Construction Began in 2015

The $1.65 billion is a sliver of the $79 billion it’s estimated to cost to build a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The contractor would design and build all of the necessary infrastructure, including track and systems, signal systems, automatic and positive train control, platforms, and overhead electrification systems and voltage stations. More than four years ago, construction began in the Valley on civil work such as viaducts and separating roadways from areas for track necessary to prepare for the full high-speed rail system.

California’s rail authority is first trying to finish track between the Valley and San Francisco before turning toward Los Angeles. Whoever wins the contract to design and build the first section would be likely to win similar contracts for the entire system from Bakersfield to San Francisco, said Frank Vacca, the project’s chief program manager.

“This contract envisions the successful bidder is guaranteed Bakersfield to San Francisco,” he said.

A Question About the Contract

Parts of the contract are essential for the state to meet a 2022 deadline under a funding agreement it has with the federal government. California and the Trump administration are locked in a legal battle over the money after the administration moved to revoke nearly $1 billion in federal money pledged to the project.

Businesses that have already contracted for other parts of the rail project could be barred from competing under certain conflict of interest requirements.

Board member Daniel Curtin raised concerns about that aspect.

“Losing the experience of those who are building our project now on the grounds that that’s going to give them a heads up on the next part of the project actually sounds counterintuitive to me,” he said.

Vacca, the operations officer, said those contractors still could be eligible for other elements of the project. He said the conflict of interest provisions are required by law.

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