New high-speed rail route suggested for Fresno-Merced

The Fresno BeeDecember 1, 2011 

State high-speed rail planners on Thursday recommended a hybrid route that follows portions of two major railroad corridors for the line between Fresno and Merced.

Officials for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said the route will be cheaper to build, and disrupt fewer businesses, than a line along Highway 99 and the adjacent Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks for the entire 65-mile stretch, or along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks a few miles to the east.

The recommendation, which will be considered by the authority's board at a Dec. 13 meeting in Merced, also pins down the site of a proposed station in downtown Fresno. Engineers suggest a site along the Union Pacific tracks at Mariposa Street – a site already endorsed by Fresno city leaders over a second site a few blocks south at Kern Street.

But the route likely will feed discontent among farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The Madera County Farm Bureau earlier this year endorsed a route that sticks close to Highway 99. The organization argued that the hybrid or BNSF options would bisect more farm properties, disrupting operations by limiting access from one side of the tracks to the other.

"We're disappointed," said Anja Raudabaugh, the Farm Bureau's executive director. "The authority was polite enough to meet with us [Thursday] morning to let us know this was coming. But this hybrid route still has some of the largest impacts to prime and important farmland.

"The authority is giving us assurance that they will work to minimize the effects on agriculture. But that doesn't change that you can't replace what's not replaceable."

From downtown Merced to just north of Chowchilla, the hybrid route generally follows Highway 99 and the Union Pacific tracks. Depending on where planners eventually decide to build a connection toward the Bay Area, the line could either swing east or west around Chowchilla or go through the city along Highway 99.

Then the line would venture eastward, toward the BNSF tracks. The route would continue along the BNSF tracks and skirt the eastern fringe of Madera. In Fresno, the high-speed line would veer back to a path near the Union Pacific line, cross the San Joaquin River and continue into downtown Fresno.

Dan Leavitt, the authority's deputy director, said the hybrid route "provides the least environmental impacts ... is the least costly alternative and has the fewest constructability issues" of the available options.

Leavitt said the route also avoids downtown Madera and the Merced County town of LeGrand – where more businesses would be disrupted and where building tracks would cost more.

Engineers estimate that the hybrid option will cost about $1 billion less than building entirely along the UP/Highway 99 route and about $500 million less than the BNSF alternative.

If the authority's board approves the recommendation, it will be included in a final environmental impact report. That report, expected in March or April, will set the stage for property acquisition and planned construction starting in late 2012.

"The authority will continue to reach out to property owners, residents and businesses ... over the next few months and throughout 2012 to discuss the route, mitigation efforts and ways we can work together to move the project forward," Leavitt said.

The Madera County Farm Bureau is asking the authority for detailed maps so it can determine precisely which farms and parcels will be affected by the proposed line.

Raudabaugh said many farmers will refuse to willingly sell to the authority the land needed for the high-speed line.

"A lot of our guys don't understand the right-of-way process because we've never had anything of this scale in the Valley," Raudabaugh said. "They don't understand that there are valuation proceedings and appraisal proceedings ... but you're also dealing with a NIMBY situation, too." NIMBY is an acronym for "not in my backyard."

Raudabaugh said she expects farmers will force the state to go to court to condemn the right of way. "That's going to be extremely costly and time-consuming" for the authority, Raudabaugh said, "but that may be the only avenue left that our guys have to get any peace of mind at night."

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 622-2410.

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