The California High-Speed Rail Authority approved the first phase of the $43-billion, 800-mile statewide system, giving the go-ahead to a stretch between the small towns of Madera and Corcoran in the Central Valley. The 65-mile-long project will include two stations in downtown Fresno and one at a site east of Hanford, along with a maintenance center located between Merced and Bakersfield. This initial segment will use about $4 billion of the available $4.3 billion to also acquire rights of way, construct viaducts, prepare the site, restore vegetation, build rail bridges, realign roadways and relocate existing railways and utilities. The authority’s engineers last week officially approved this stretch as well. Meanwhile, an eight-person peer review group, led by former Caltrans director Will Kempton, who now heads the Orange County Transportation Authority, released its findings on the viability of the high-speed rail plan (which was authorized with the passage of the rail bond measure in 2008) and concluded that the program needs a “thorough reassessment” of how it is being planned and managed. The group contends that the authority needs a clear financial plan, a business model and a strategy for managing inevitable cost increases.