Of the hundreds of miles of track that would operate between San Diego and Sacramento, the first 65-mile leg will be built in the Central Valley between two small towns straddling Fresno.
"We're building the first section in a place that is most feasible," said Tom Umberg, vice chairman, Calif. High-Speed Rail Authority. "We get the biggest bang for our buck."
The commissioners didn't have much leeway. The federal government mandated the more than $4 billion in funding had to be spent in the Central Valley.
Contracts had to be signed by the end of the year, or California risked losing the money.
"Four billion dollars. You don't get cars, you don't get locomotives. You don't get a signaling system," said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation.
At the very least, critics say the tracks could have started and ended at two cities where more people live.
"Bakersfield to Fresno proves itself, provides the most track and will show that the value of the taxpayers' money is being used most effectively," said John Ritchie, vice president of commercial development, Paramount Farming.
Ridership between the two Central Valley towns was not considered because there are no plans to run the trains on any part of the system until the tracks extend to at least the Bay Area or Los Angeles.
"This is not a train to nowhere," said Visalia Mayor Bob Link. "Fresno is one of the largest cities in California."
Approval of the first leg in the Central Valley will help an area of the state that's been dubbed the "new Appalachia," where the unemployment rate is as high as 25 percent in some areas.
But there's growing concern future funding for the $4-billion project could dry up as Republicans in Congress try to tame the $1.3-trillion federal deficit.