If California succeeds, Americans could experience at home the kind of travel widely available in Europe, Japan, and China. A 475-mile, L.A.-to-San Francisco train ride is slated to take two hours and 40 minutes, three hours less than the 380-mile car trip.
In addition to fast travel, the project promises to deliver up to 66,000 construction jobs a year and 400,000 related jobs, reduced highway and airport congestion, and cleaner air.
If successful, it could whet the appetite for similar trains in the Northeast Corridor, the nation's busiest rail route.
But if the California project dies, "critics will quickly point to that" to challenge any high-speed trains for the Northeast, said Drew Galloway, Amtrak's chief of Northeast Corridor planning and performance.
"There is a lot riding on California's success."
"If California were to collapse, it makes it much harder for the Northeast," said Dan Schned, a senior planner for the Regional Plan Association in New York City, which has long pushed for high-speed trains on the Northeast Corridor.
"It would make it open to the criticism that nobody wants this."
'Train to nowhere'
If the California project is completed on its current schedule, high-speed trains would be running by 2022 between Merced and Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, a distance of about 300 miles. The complete route, connecting L.A.'s iconic Union Station and Anaheim to a new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, is supposed to be operating by 2029.
Opponents have sued to stop the project, calling it a boondoggle that will cost more and deliver less than promised in a $10 billion ballot measure approved by voters in 2008.
And they complain that starting the project in Fresno, in the middle of California's inland Central Valley, means a "train to nowhere."
The opponents got a big boost Monday when a state judge refused to validate the planned sale of $8 billion in state bonds for the project and ordered the California High-Speed Rail Authority to rework its financing plan before spending any state bond money.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny did not order the authority to stop work on the first 29-mile construction section here. And he said the agency could continue to use federal money already granted by the Obama administration.
But the judge's actions seem certain to slow the already-delayed project and may further erode waning public support for it.
Dan Richard, chairman of the high-speed rail authority's board, said, "It is important to stress that the court again declined the opposition's request to stop the high-speed rail project from moving forward.
"Additionally, the judge did not invalidate the bonds as approved by the voters. . . . Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation's first high-speed rail system."
Here in the heart of the Central Valley, where the notice-to-proceed was issued last month on the first $1 billion construction contract, sentiments are mixed.
Political and business leaders say the high-speed rail project - and perhaps a major maintenance facility - would bring tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the impoverished Central Valley, where unemployment is nearly twice the national average. And they hope it can reduce the agricultural valley's isolation from the prosperous high-tech, financial, and entertainment centers in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles.
"Commerce tends to follow the transportation corridors, and the Central Valley has sort of been left out over the years," said Al Smith, president of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce. "We get thrown a few scraps . . . but this could change the whole equation.
"If you could jump on a train and be in San Francisco in an hour or an hour and a half, you could almost commute. Or you might want to reconsider the location of your business."
A few blocks away, Gary Lanfranco is being forced to reconsider the location of his business, and he's not happy about it.
Lanfranco is the owner of the Cosmopolitan Grill & Tavern, one of 365 local properties that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is seeking to buy here for the railroad's right-of-way. So far, the authority has come to terms or is in talks with 182 of them.
This is Lanfranco's third go-around with the rail planners, and this time, he's reluctantly negotiating to sell the property that has been in his family for four generations.
"My great-uncle came here in 1902 from Italy, and my grandfather came to this location in 1904. My son, Joe, is running the place now."
Lanfranco, 67, is looking for a new location on the other side of the tracks. He fears he won't be able to remain debt-free, and he knows potential sellers "smell high-speed rail money." But he's getting tired of fighting.
"The sleepless nights are terrible," he said. "They have to end."
Legislative approval - by a single vote - of the funds for the project in July 2012 gave the crucial go-ahead. The first construction contract, $1 billion for the initial segment now underway here, was signed in August, and the construction consortium opened its Fresno offices in September, though shovels won't hit the ground for months.
The Federal Railroad Administration gave its approval for the first segment, north from Fresno, in late September.
For the second, 60-mile segment south from Fresno, builders have until Dec. 6 to submit their qualifications to bid. That "design-build" contract is expected to be worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion, with work supposed to start in summer 2014.
"We'll have $3 billion of work underway by this time next year. That's a serious commitment," said Jeff Morales, chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
But those plans could be delayed or halted by Monday's court ruling.
By refusing to validate the sale of $8 billion in bonds, the judge opened the way for opponents to sue to block the sale of those bonds. The state had been seeking the court's validation to prevent such suits, but Kenny said the state had not demonstrated that the bond sale was "necessary and desirable."
Much of the initial funding for the construction is coming from the Obama administration's stimulus money, including $3.3 billion for the initial Madera-to-Bakersfield segment, a stretch from 29 miles north of Fresno to 100 miles south of Fresno.
The court ruling allows work to continue with the federal money, but eventually, the state needs to contribute $2.7 billion of its own for that section, which is supposed to be finished by 2018.
And the ability to provide that state money may prove very difficult without access to the bond money.
Because the federal stimulus money must, by law, be spent by 2017 - and because it's relatively easy to build through the open, flat land of the valley - the first high-speed train track in America is scheduled to be laid between cities few Americans have heard of.
Opponents scoff at such a "train to nowhere," but Morales says it's not unusual to start major transportation projects in the middle.
Merced to somewhere
California's high-speed tracks currently are scheduled to reach major population centers in 2022, after tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains to the northern Los Angeles suburbs.
Then travelers could make the 300 miles from Merced to L.A.'s San Fernando Valley in about two hours, with commuter train connections available at both ends to complete their trips into Los Angeles and San Francisco.
By 2026, the northern end of the line is supposed to reach San Jose, to allow trains to travel 410 miles and finally connect the Bay Area to the L.A. Basin.
But it will take an additional three years, and not-so-high-speed trains, to complete the "bookends" of the project into downtown San Francisco and downtown Los Angeles.
A compromise to use upgraded existing commuter lines for those "bookends" allowed planners to cut $30 billion in costs and provide earlier benefits for urban commuters, but that "blended" approach raised complaints that the line would no longer be the true high-speed line approved by voters.
In an interview, Morales defended the shift and said nonstop trains would still make the 475-mile journey from L.A. to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, as required by the ballot measure.
"We can achieve the same performance at much less cost," he said. "It's a requirement that we make that time limit, and we will."
The average ticket fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles is estimated to be $81 (in 2010 dollars), with eight trains an hour during peak periods, according to the authority's current business plan.
Operating revenue is projected to exceed costs, meaning no operating subsidy would be required.
Critics challenge those projections, and public support has slipped since the 2008, as cost estimates climbed, lawsuits mounted, and construction was delayed.
A Los Angeles Times poll in September found 43 percent of voters support the project, down from the 53 percent who approved it at the polls in 2008.
Could high-speed rail be on the way for the Northeast Corridor?