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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fresno, Calif., rail consolidation plan halted

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A new report on moving BNSF tracks out of central Fresno to relieve traffic congestion says it would cost at least $803 million, by far the highest such estimate yet, the Bee reports. As a result, an organization formed 10 years ago to advocate shifting the BNSF tracks to the Union Pacific corridor is giving up, its president said.

"The Web site's coming down, and I've disconnected the phone that we had. It's over and done with," said Tom Bailey of Fresno Area Residents for Rail Consolidation.

Three years ago, Bailey estimated that moving the tracks could cost $500 million in addition to the $100 million set aside by Fresno County voters in November 2006 when they approved a 20-year extension of the Measure C half-cent transportation sales tax.

Six years earlier, the last formal study on the project had placed the cost at $247 to $319 million. But the new study, funded by the Council of Fresno County Governments and the California High Speed Rail Authority, boosts those estimates sharply. It identifies six alternatives ranging from $803 million to almost $1.4 billion. It used what the study's draft report says were conservative assumptions about land costs and the two railroads' willingness to adjust their operations.

Even at that, cost still may not be the biggest obstacle to merging the two rail lines. Rail consolidation is also competing with the proposed high-speed rail system for both land and money. The study notes that the cheapest of the rail consolidation options would require space alongside the existing UP tracks. That's the same spot envisioned for the high-speed system's route through Fresno. The more expensive options, in contrast, would involve moving one or both sets of freight tracks to a new route that would bypass the city on the west.

Initially, the rail consolidation study was also supposed to evaluate routing the high-speed system's express tracks along the same bypass. That could have allowed the projects to share some costs. But that plan was dropped in the middle of the study after meetings between city officials and high-speed rail authority staff members.

Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd said city officials were warned that the authority might not be able to pay for both a local route through the city and an express route west of town, at least not in the system's early years. After that, city officials decided that the local route, with a station in downtown Fresno, was a more important goal than the bypass.

"What they were saying was, 'What is your preference?' " Rudd said. "And we said our preference is for a downtown station."

The authority's studies now focus on three alternative routes through Fresno. All would adjoin the Union Pacific tracks on one side or the other. To clear obstacles such as the Highway 180 viaduct, the track beds would have to be elevated 60 feet above ground on a series of towers.

Having all of the UP and high-speed rail tracks in the same corridor, instead of moving some to a bypass loop, would make it almost impossible to find room for another pair of freight tracks to accommodate the BNSF line. And that, Bailey said, dooms rail consolidation for the foreseeable future.

That means the $100 million set aside in Measure C for rail consolidation could revert to its alternate use -- building bridges to separate streets from one or both of the rail lines -- or be diverted to another use, such as the effort to lure the high-speed rail system's heavy maintenance yard to a site south of Fresno.

Rudd said there is still hope for rail consolidation at some future date, especially as traffic increases on the existing lines: "It's at least taking a nap, but it's not dead by any stretch of the imagination.

But Bailey thinks otherwise.

"Once they made the decision not to do the loop, that was the end of it," Bailey said. "I think it's time to fold it. I just don't see it going anywhere."