By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California moved a step closer to building a high-speed train line on Thursday, when a state commission chose a contractor to handle construction of the route's first leg from Merced to Fresno in the state's breadbasket.
The rail line, a major priority of California Governor Jerry Brown, would send passengers hurtling through the state's fertile San Joaquin Valley as they zipped from San Diego to points north, eventually including Sacramento and San Francisco.
The contract set in motion on Thursday would be for designing and building the first portion of the line.
The state received bids from several contractors who wanted to build the project, but settled on a coalition of builders led by Los Angeles-based Tutor Perini Corp.
The company, in partnership with firms including Texas-based Zachry Corp and California-based Parsons Corp, bid just under $1 billion for the project, coming in below rivals who bid up to $500,000 more.
The board's action on Thursday was to authorize the California High-Speed Rail Authority's CEO, Jeff Morales, to begin negotiations with the Tutor Perini partnership.
Morales said in a statement he expected to finalize a contract with the consortium "in the coming weeks."
Critics, however, have said the overall project - estimated to cost $68 billion - is too expensive and should be put on hold.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse)