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In what's arguably the real kickoff to the construction of California's largest ever infrastructure project, members of the state's high speed rail authority on Thursday signed off on the initial $985 million contract for breaking ground this summer.

"We've built more large civil works programs in this state than anyone else," said Ron Tutor, CEO of Tutor Perini, the firm leading the trio of companies that submitted the winning bid.

The rail authority's chief executive officer now will finalize the details with the builders, including the date on which construction will actually begin on the 29 mile initial segment between Madera and Fresno.

Most of Thursday's historic vote was, in truth, just a formality. Five bids were considered finalists for the project, with the Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons offer coming out on top. The rail authority created a process that awarded points for each bid based on technical skills and price, but has come under intense criticism for a change in that process that seemed to weight cost above the technical elements.

As such, board members spent a lot of time, in effect, defending that change at Thursday's meeting.

"On the issue of technical competence, we're comfortable," said rail authority board member Mike Rossi, who is also Gov. Jerry Brown's top business and jobs adviser.

Rossi and others argued that all bids, including the winning offer, passed the technical skill threshold. And he suggested that other bids, which had higher technical component scores, had done more work than required in an effort to boost that part of their overall evaluation.

Still, the bullet train's critics insist the final signatures on the deal should be withheld.

"Have you really done your due diligence on the contractor and your process?" askedFrank Oliveira of the group Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability.

Thursday's action comes one week after both a heated congressional field hearing and an intense civil trial seeking to stop the train project in its tracks.

The man behind the winning bid, speaking to reporters during a break in the train agency's discussions, dismissed any criticism of his company's record and reliability.

"Like most of the uneducated opinions you hear in here where we can't rebut them," said Ron Tutor, "they're not based on anything factual or real."

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