Opinion: California is taking a bold step into the future.

There’s no debate among the experts. Twenty years from now, we’ll have grown to 50 million people. We’ll need more classrooms to teach them in, more houses for them to live in, more water for them to drink – and more ways for them to move up and down our state.

Business as usual won’t get the job done, especially when it comes to transportation. Not unless we’re all willing to build 2,970 more freeway lane miles, five more runways at major airports – and 91 passenger gates.

Californians want and deserve better – faster, more affordable, more convenient and more environmentally sustainable options. They told us so in 2008 when they voted to invest $9 billion in the state’s high-speed rail network.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has taken a major step toward that goal by selecting the starting point for construction of the system, which will connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles and Anaheim via the Central Valley. The starting point is at the heart of the system, a 65-mile stretch starting north of Fresno near Madera and continuing to Corcoran, north of Bakersfield.

Though federal restrictions made this segment the only logical choice – and there’s no suggestion whatsoever that these first few miles will constitute even the first operable segment of the system – the critics had a field day.

Tongues wagged about the choice, despite the fact that 5 million people already live in the Central Valley – and millions more will make this region their home over the next few years, when high-speed rail service is set to begin.

Some states are sending their high-speed rail dollars back to Washington. We’re thinking ahead and putting them to work – and putting hundreds of thousands of Californians to work in the process.

This part of the project alone will invest more than $4 billion in the state’s economy – making use of every federal dollar available to create as many California jobs as we can, as soon as we can.

It also lays the foundation for a system that can be extended both to the north – toward Merced and the Bay Area – or south – toward Bakersfield and Los Angeles – as more funds become available.

There’s no question that fully funding this project remains a challenge. But with a key decision made about how to start, we’re best positioned to attract additional federal support, and we’re poised to demonstrate the kind of success that will bring new funding California’s way.

The private sector will also have an important role to play when the time comes to attract additional investments. Here again, critics have questioned the project. But there’s no denying that companies around the world are putting capital at risk to build high-speed rail – and they are eager to make the same kind of investment in California.

Let the critics – and other states unwilling to look to the future – shrink from the challenge of high-speed rail. In California, we’re rising to meet it.

But it’s important to remember that we’re in for a marathon, not a sprint. The finish line is the nation’s first true high-speed rail system – one that connects California’s major urban centers despite the great distance between them.

And no matter where we start, the goal remains the same: a statewide high-speed rail system that creates good jobs, improves air quality and provides us all with more and better choices for travel.

We can’t realize that promise with a single stretch of track – no matter where it starts or ends.

We can stop. We can turn back. We can join Toledo and Milwaukee – and neglect our future in the process.

Or instead, we can live out the true heritage of every Californian, and as Thoreau once advised, “go forth boldly in the direction of our dreams.”

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