Friday, June 04, 2010

California high-speed rail route advances

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The list of potential routes for California's planned high-speed rail system in the San Joaquin Valley grew slightly smaller June 3, the Fresno Bee reports. Meeting in Sacramento, the state High Speed Rail Authority board approved further study on three routes through Fresno. All of them adjoin the Union Pacific and all include elevated tracks up to 60 feet high.

Farther south, the board also gave its blessing to plans to bypass Hanford on the east, despite objections by farmers whose land could be cut in two by the rail line. The authority's staff said adjustments might be made to reduce those conflicts.

Finally, the board left Fresno in the running for a heavy maintenance yard expected to create at least 1,500 jobs. Local agencies are pitching a site along the BNSF line south of Fresno. That site has now survived an initial screening, but that means only that it met criteria such as size and proximity to the system's likely route.

A delegation of local political and business leaders addressed the board before its vote. They told the board that the region was largely united in its support for the proposed routes and the maintenance yard.

"We are ready in Fresno to turn dirt as soon as you are," Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said.

Unity was harder to find, however, to the south in Kings County, where city officials and farm leaders have staked out contrasting positions on the rail line's route.

Leaving Fresno, the route is expected to follow the BNSF tracks most of the way to Bakersfield. But current plans call for it to swing east around Hanford and cross Highway 198 near Highway 43. A station to serve Hanford, Visalia and Tulare may also be built there. Bypassing Hanford pleases the city, but farmers in the affected area range from concerned to livid.

"We cannot allow -- and excuse the language of this -- the butchering of farmland anymore," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League.

Similar controversies surround the potential routes through or around Corcoran, Wasco and Shafter. In each, the board voted to leave two alternatives on the table: an elevated line following the BNSF route, or a ground-level bypass through neighboring farmland.

In Fresno, each of the three alternative routes still in the mix would be adjacent to the UP tracks and include a downtown station centered roughly on Mariposa Street. In each case, the line would be elevated to carry the high-speed train over cross streets and obstacles like the Highway 180 and Highway 41 viaducts downtown.

The board also approved route options for the segment from Merced to San Jose. In the Valley, the two remaining options would follow Henry Miller Road north of Los Banos, then either Avenue 24 or Avenue 21 to a junction with the system's north-south branch near Chowchilla.

The $42.6-billion system is scheduled to start construction in 2012 and begin serving passengers between San Francisco and Anaheim in 2020. Draft environmental reports are scheduled to be completed in January for the Fresno-Bakersfield segment and July 2011 for Merced-San Jose.

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