High-speed rail board OKs hybrid Valley route

Merced Sun-StarDecember 13, 2011 

The California High-Speed Authority approved a hybrid route for the Merced-to-Fresno route during its board meeting Tuesday in Merced.

But the decision came amid a chorus of voices -- pro and con, urban and rural -- from about 100 people who crowded the City Hall council chambers and spilled over into the lobby and elsewhere in the building.

The route, a blend of the Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, would put stations in downtown Fresno on Mariposa Street and in Merced between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and G Street.

The recommendation will be included in the final environmental impact report, which would be published in February next year, according to authority officials.

The hybrid route would have less impact on natural resources than the BNSF alternative and fewer impacts on noise, dust and air quality and more, according to high-speed rail documents.

It would cost an estimated $3.8 billion to $4.8 billion, according to Rachel Wall, authority spokeswoman. The entire project costs $65 billion, but $98 billion when adjusted for inflation, she said.

The project is furthest along in environmental work in the statewide system between Merced and Fresno, according to Dan Leavitt, deputy director for HSR planning. And it's also where construction will be initiated for the statewide high-speed rail system.

In the packed city council chambers, people took advantage of public-comment time to discuss the hybrid route, job creation, the cost of mitigation and the agricultural impact.

Comments from officials representing cities along the proposed route, citizens and students favored the hybrid route for the north-south alignment between Merced and Fresno, citing the number of jobs that would be available to California workers, and the ease of travel between the Valley and the rest of the state. But others, particularly those representing Chowchilla and Madera, voiced their unhappiness, accusing the authority of running over their town and ruining prime ag land.

Chief among their complaints: The authority didn't properly consider alternative alignments.

The project would put union and non-union workers to work, according to Jack Munoz, business manager and secretary-treasurer of Laborers' International Union of North America. More than 20 workers from the union of construction workers were standing outside city hall with banners. "It would put a lot of people to work," Munoz said.

Students from University of California at Merced dressed up like a high-speed train and walked around outside City Hall chanting, "We want jobs, we want rail!" Ryan Heller, a UC Merced senior, founded "I Will Ride," a new student organization that backs high-speed rail. Heller said he would still be in California when the rail would be built. "We're the ones advocating build it, pay for it, ride it," he said.

The San Joaquin Valley tends to get overlooked, according to former Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs. "Dollars will be spent on public transportation in California one way or another. This population is going to double in the next 40 years. It's about the future, not about today," he said.

In other action:

-- Board members extended the public comment period for the 2012 draft business plan until Jan. 16.

-- The authority said it plans to let its $9 million contract with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide expire next week. The decision comes in the wake of a report this month by The Sacramento Bee that exposed millions of dollars in regional outreach buried in subcontracts. The board said Tuesday that it will consider handling public relations in-house.

-- The board didn't consider a location for the heavy maintenance facility, which will be dealt with later.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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