Reports detail high-speed rail's impact on Valley

August 9, 2011 

The first two stretches of California's proposed high-speed train system in the San Joaquin Valley would close dozens of roads, displace hundreds of homes and businesses, affect thousands of acres of farmland, and cost billions more to build than originally anticipated.

But environmental impact reports released Tuesday for the Merced-to-Fresno and Fresno-to-Bakersfield segments say the statewide project would save more than $100 billion in new and expanded freeways and airport construction over the next 25 years, reduce automobile traffic and help improve air quality in the Valley and the state.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's long-awaited release of the reports, about six months behind schedule, kicks off a public-comment period that runs through Sept. 28.

Over the next month and a half, the authority and its consultants will hold workshops and public hearings where local officials, residents and business owners can learn more about the project or voice their complaints or concerns.

The comments will steer the authority toward the selection of a final route from among several options in a final version of the reports, expected in early 2012.

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark said the reports provide the most detail so far about route options, their effects on nearby communities -- and how much the project will cost.

"The information contained in these reports will ensure we can successfully go to bid for the initial construction segment next year," van Ark said Tuesday.

The two reports, amounting to more than 10,000 pages, assess how various route options will affect communities, businesses, farms and historic and wildlife resources along the 190-mile stretch from a proposed station in downtown Merced, through downtown Fresno, to a station in downtown Bakersfield.

They also spell out the measures the authority needs to take to make up for those effects.

Route options

Between Merced and Fresno, two main route options remain in consideration: one along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Highway 99 through Merced, Chowchilla and Madera; and one along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks a few miles east of the cities and the freeway. A third option is a combination of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern routes. The route lengths vary from 74 to 95 miles between downtown Merced and downtown Fresno.

Among the Merced-to-Fresno highlights:

- Engineers say building the line is expected to cost $3.8 billion to $6.9 billion between Merced and Fresno, depending on which route is chosen. This is the first time the authority has produced a breakdown of costs by segment.

- Between 291 and 343 homes would be displaced, forcing the relocation of 900 to 1,100 residents.

- Anywhere from 228 to 323 businesses would be relocated, affecting 6,500 to 8,200 employees.

-Between 1,037 and 1,481 acres of "important farmland" would be lost to the rail alignment. Important farmland is land designated either as prime, of statewide or local importance, or unique.

From downtown Fresno to downtown Bakersfield, only one 114-mile main route is in play, from a proposed downtown station along the Union Pacific tracks near Chinatown to the south end of Fresno, then south along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks into downtown Bakersfield. The route veers from the freight rail tracks in Kings County to bypass Hanford on the east.

In Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, the route includes options for bypasses around the towns of Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter.

Highlights of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield route:

- Cost estimates for construction range from $6.2 billion to $7.2 billion.

- About 375 homes would be displaced and 1,190 residents relocated.

- About 380 businesses would be relocated, affecting about 2,680 employees.

-More than 2,200 acres of important farmland would be affected by the rail line.

Costs and effects

California has about $6.3 billion available to start construction in late 2012 on its first segment, between Fresno and Bakersfield. That includes about $3.3 billion in federal funds and about $3 billion from Proposition 1A, a high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.

Earlier this year, state rail officials estimated that they could build the entire Valley stretch from Merced to Bakersfield, with stations in Merced, Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield, for about $8 billion.

But the projections in the EIRs indicate that the cheapest route options would cost about $10 billion, and could run more than $14 billion.

The latest estimates count a number of costs that were not covered in the authority's earlier projections, said Rachel Wall, the agency's spokeswoman. Those include about $1.1 billion for electrical substations, switching stations and overhead lines to power the trains, as well as cost escalation since 2009, when prior estimates were made.

Wall added that the authority believes its $6.3 billion budget to build the initial section -- from just north of the San Joaquin River in Madera County to near Shafter in Kern County -- remains realistic.

While the rising cost has been a major concern for many people, the project's potential effects on agriculture -- the region's economic mainstay -- have prompted loud and vocal protests, as well.

In Merced, Madera and northern Fresno counties, engineers estimate that the high-speed tracks would take between 1,037 and 1,481 acres of farmland out of production. In southern Fresno County and in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, the toll on farmland amounts to about 2,200 acres.

While that's only about 0.04% of the more than 7.5 million acres of farm property in the six-county region, it adds up to what federal law considers "substantial adverse effects," and what state environmental law deems "significant" effects, on agriculture in the north Valley.

That includes acreage that would be sliced from farms as the tracks arc across some properties, creating remnant parcels that are separated from the rest of the farming operation and are too small to farm economically.

"They're talking about a half-acre here or a couple of acres there, and those don't seem very significant," said Tim Niswander, agricultural commissioner for Kings County. "But talks about the cumulative effects of a project, and those little pieces add up. What's the effect in the long term?

"I think the public needs to be aware that we're running out of land to produce food on."

Niswander added that no matter whether land is lost to homes, new freeway lanes or high-speed train tracks, "every acre that's taken out of production is an acre that's no longer growing food."

Tuesday's reports propose that the rail authority would try to make up for the conversion of agricultural land by buying an equivalent amount of farm property from willing sellers to protect it from future development.

The authority also plans to create a "farmland consolidation program" to sell those smaller, lopped-off plots to neighboring landowners so that they could still be used for farming.

For larger pieces divided by the tracks, right-of-way agents can work with farmers to develop over- or underpasses to enable livestock or farm equipment to get from one side of the tracks to the other, or compensate owners for the hardships caused by severing the land.

Information workshops are planned on the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield environmental impact reports:

Fairmead: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 23, Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, 22491 Fairmead Blvd.

LeGrand: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 24, LeGrand Legion Hall, 12506 LeGrand Road.

Chowchilla: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 25, Madera County Fairgrounds/Chowchilla Little Theater, 1000 S. 3rd St.

Corcoran: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 25, Technology Center, 1101 Dairy Ave.

Fresno: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 30, Edison High School, 540 E. California Ave.

Hearings are planned in September for the public to comment on the environmental impact reports.

MERCED-FRESNO SECTION:

Merced: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 14, Merced Community Senior Center, 755 W. 15th St.

Madera: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 15, Madera City Council Chambers, 205 W. Fourth St.

FRESNO-BAKERSFIELD SECTION:

Hanford: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 21, Hanford Civic Auditorium, 400 N. Douty St.

Bakersfield: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 22, Beale Memorial Library, 701 Truxtun Ave.

JOINT HEARING FOR BOTH SECTIONS:

Fresno: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 20, Fresno Convention Center, 848 M St.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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