Do you know where construction began on our nation’s interstate system following the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956?

The goal of that law was to spark the development of 41,000 miles of highway over a 20-year period, connecting the United States by automobile from end to end. At the time, it was the largest public works project in American history. Today, that interstate highway system is in large part responsible for our nation’s mobility and the strength of our economy. In fact, where it started is today irrelevant. What was finally achieved was astronomical.

We have a similar story unfolding this week in California. Due to funding awards from the federal government, our state’s high-speed train project is headed toward construction. It is a system that, in 10 years, will whisk passengers from Southern California to the Bay Area more affordably and more efficiently. In the near term, it is a system whose construction will put tens of thousands of people to work in our state. The question being put to the High-Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors: where should we start building it?

Where and how we begin construction of the high-speed rail system will help position California to be able to attract further federal dollars and private investment, and to be able to successfully complete the entire system. It is an engineering and project-management decision, not a political one. It is an important decision, as it should secure the future success of the program as a whole.

But with $4.3 billion available to be directed toward one area of the state, it is not surprising that those with a stake in the project are excited, and may attempt to influence the decision. To be sure, there is much to gain. Every $1 billion in infrastructure investment creates roughly 20,000 jobs, meaning this initial investment in the construction of high-speed rail in California – to begin no later than the summer of 2012 – will inject more than 80,000 jobs into our state. Certainly, that’s a near-term benefit that our state needs. Not only one region of the state will benefit, but all corners of the state will be positively affected by this labor demand.

But in this conversation over where to begin building this project, we must not lose sight of the broader goal. We must not focus on the first 50 or 80 or 100 miles so tightly that we fail to see the entire project – all 520 miles needed to reach from Southern California to the Bay Area. Only then will California have a true high-speed train system.

Our partners at the FRA have narrowed this decision for us, telling California that we must use the entirety of the federal funding awarded thus far in a single stretch of track in the Central Valley – not in the Los Angeles of San Francisco areas. There are many reasons that this makes sense. Spreading the money throughout the state in a number of smaller projects would risk the funding being swallowed up into existing transportation systems such that we don’t see a substantial new benefit from the work. And of course, it is our Central Valley where California will experience true high-speed rail at 220 miles per hour on new tracks dedicated to the bullet trains alone.

But our task at hand is not to build stretches of rail track. It is a misconception that the world’s fastest trains will ever run on a few miles of track or that we will ever operate service for paying passengers between points such as Los Angeles and Anaheim or Fresno and Bakersfield. Our task at hand is to build a statewide system.

Just like that stretch of Interstate 70 through St. Charles County, Missouri – the first construction to begin on the interstate highway building project in the ‘50s, ultimately, the first piece of high-speed rail infrastructure built in California will be but one piece of that statewide system. And the next generations of riders will not be concerned, as they speed from one part of our great state to another, with which few miles were the first to be built.