By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed an initial funding bill for the state's ambitious high-speed rail project, clearing the way for construction of a 130-mile section of track through the state's agricultural heartland.
Brown signed the legislation in Los Angeles, one of the planned endpoints of the bullet train network. He was due in San Francisco later on Wednesday for another ceremony celebrating what is a substantial win for the Democratic governor.
Brown says a bullet train network will boost job creation and provide an alternative to car and plane travel in the country's most populous state.
Critics say the state can ill afford the $68 billion project that farmers unions regard as an "imminent threat" to some of the most agriculturally productive land in the United States.
"This legislation will help put thousands of people in California back to work," Brown said. "By improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work."
The bullet train network, expected to take decades to complete, would eventually connect Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles, with stops along the way.
The California Senate narrowly approved the measure earlier in July after a lengthy floor debate in which critics said the cash-strapped state lacked the financial means to undertake the project, the most ambitious public works endeavor to date in California.
The state and federal financing outlined in the bill includes the issuance of $2.6 billion in state bonds, which would in turn unlock $3.2 billion in federal funds for construction of track in the Central Valley that was expected to begin at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013.
The bill, which passed by a wider margin in the Democratic-controlled Assembly one day before the contentious Senate vote, also approves spending over $2 billion in federal, state and local funds on rail projects in urban areas to prepare to link them to a statewide system.
Construction on the bullet train line will start in the agriculturally rich Central Valley where trains could reach 220 mph over flat and more sparsely populated terrain.
"You can pave farmlands with new roads and blackout skies with airplanes but the air we breathe will be no better than a tailpipe," California state Senator Darrell Steinberg said in a statement welcoming the governor's signature. "This project brings an infusion of energy into rural areas of high unemployment and provides relief for urban traffic gridlock."
(Reporting by Mary Slosson, editing by Dan Whitcomb)