High-speed rail review deadline extended

August 25, 2011 

— SACRAMENTO – Valley residents and businesses will have more time to digest and comment on thousands of pages of environmental reports for how high-speed trains will affect the region.

The official 45-day review period for the California High-Speed Rail Authority's reports for its Merced-to-Fresno and Fresno-to-Bakersfield sections is now 60 days, wrapping up on Oct. 13 instead of the original deadline of Sept. 28.

The environmental-impact reports for the two sections of the proposed 520-mile statewide rail system amount to more than 10,000 pages. They detail the anticipated effects of building and operating high-speed trains in the Valley, where construction is planned to start in late 2012.

The extension was prompted by several issues, rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark told the authority's board members at their meeting Thursday in Sacramento.

Computer discs distributed by a state clearinghouse for the Merced-Fresno report contained some corrupted files and had to be resent, van Ark said. And since the reports were released, the authority had received many requests for an extension to allow more public comment.

One of those requests included a petition signed by about 300 Kings County residents, delivered in person to the board Thursday by Hanford-area farmer Frank Oliveira on behalf of the Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability.

The organization sought an extension of the comment period from 45 to 90 days "so people who have jobs can have a little more time to read the document before you close the official comment period," said Oliveira, who operates several farms in the proposed path of the rail line through Kings County.

In a letter accompanying the petition, CCHSRA co-chairman Aaron Fukuda – whose rural neighborhood east of Hanford would also be displaced by the rail route – said that "45 days is simply not an adequate time period to allow the kind of public involvement and comment that both [state and federal law] require in connection with the environmental review of a project of this extent and complexity."

Before the meeting, however, Fukuda was pessimistic about the authority's reaction. "We feel this is a reasonable request given the breadth and scope of this project. ... However, we are not sure how the [authority] is going to approach this topic," he wrote in an email. "My expectation that the authority will grant the public the appropriate time is very low."

The 15-day extension is less than what many individuals and groups were looking for. But, van Ark said, "we understand the need for people to have access to these documents for as long as possible."

"We hope this extended comment period will go a far way to meeting the needs of those who have requested an extension, but at the same time will ensure that the authority can stay on schedule and meet the dates that we need to meet."

Time is considered crucial to the project because much of the $3.3 billion allocated for the project by the federal government requires that construction begin by the fall of 2012.

The extension will not change the schedule for five public hearings – in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield – at which people can testify in person. Those hearings are still slated to be held between Sept. 14 and 22 in the Valley. Verbal comments offered at those hearings will be recorded and transcribed to be included in the final versions of the reports to be released later this year or in early 2012.

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