By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A judge on Friday denied a legal bid by farmers seeking to stall construction of the initial segment of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project in the state's agricultural heartland.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley denied a preliminary injunction motion filed by farmers who said they would be adversely affected by construction of the ambitious rail project.
"The judge's decision ensures that we can continue to move forward with our preparatory work to build the first segment of high-speed rail in the Central Valley," the chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's board of directors, Dan Richard, said in a statement.
Construction of the initial segment is expected to begin in the summer of 2013, Richard added.
California's bullet train network, expected to take decades to complete, would eventually connect Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles, with stops along the 800-mile (1300-km) system.
Farmers' unions have decried the project, the most ambitious public works endeavor in California, as an "imminent threat" to some of the most agriculturally productive land in the United States.
Federal authorities approved a 65-mile section of track through the state's central agricultural heartland, from Merced to Fresno, after environmental and engineering reviews were completed earlier this year.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Mohammad Zargham)