Caltrans to move piece of Highway 99 for rail

2 miles of highway will be rerouted for bullet-train track.

The Fresno BeeApril 18, 2012 

Relocating a two-mile stretch of Highway 99 in west-central Fresno will be no easy feat in the proposed development of a high-speed train line through the city.

That's why the California High-Speed Rail Authority will look to the state's highway department to handle the work instead of contractors who would build the first section of the state's high-speed rail project in Fresno.

The California Department of Transportation will be responsible for moving Highway 99 between Ashlan and Clinton avenues.

"This is a state highway, and what Caltrans does best is highway work," said Lisa Marie Burcar, a spokeswoman for the authority. "They are the experts on the highway system, so it makes sense to have them do this portion of the work."

Caltrans officials acknowledged that they are working on the project but indicated that some details have yet to be firmed up.

"Caltrans is working diligently toward an interagency agreement with the High-Speed Rail Authority to identify the scope, cost and timing of the Highway 99 realignment project in Fresno," the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

A 29-mile segment of the line from east of Madera to the south end of Fresno is proposed to be the first stretch built on what would ultimately extend to a 520-mile system of trains connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco through the San Joaquin Valley.

That first construction contract, for which five teams of contractors have been invited to bid, is expected to cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. The authority believes construction on the section could start late this year or early next year and be completed in 2016.

All of the work, however, will depend on whether the state Legislature agrees to use $2.7 billion in high-speed rail bond money from Proposition 1A, approved by state voters in 2008.

The federal government has pledged about $3.3 billion for the first sections of construction between Madera and Bakersfield, but that money will evaporate if lawmakers decline to pony up matching money from Prop. 1A in the state's 2012-13 budget.

From the San Joaquin River through Fresno, the proposed rail route generally runs southeast along the Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks and Highway 99 through downtown. South of downtown, the line would curve southward to run along the BNSF Railway freight tracks near Cedar Avenue.

Rail authority representatives said Caltrans' expertise in road construction makes it an attractive option for the work on Highway 99.

Between Ashlan and Clinton avenues, the six-lane freeway snuggles up against a Union Pacific Railroad yard on the east side, leaving no room to shoehorn the proposed high-speed rail line into its planned route.

"We have urged that the better solution to the relocation of that highway would be to have Caltrans do that work rather than put it in the [construction] contract ..." Thomas Fellenz, the rail authority's acting CEO, told the rail authority board last week. "They will be relocating Highway 99 on our behalf, and we'll pay them for that work."

The rail authority's plans call for shoving the freeway westward by 100 feet or so -- onto property now occupied by a string of businesses. They include a pair of mini-storage companies, several motels, a mobile-home park, an RV dealership, a truck stop and an assisted-living facility.

Three off-ramps on that stretch of the southbound highway -- Dakota, Shields and Princeton avenues -- also would be displaced. It is not clear whether those ramps would be rebuilt to provide access to businesses and neighborhoods to the west of the freeway.

It's also not known yet how much the highway relocation will cost.

"Caltrans is currently working up estimates for this portion of the package," Burcar said. "Our goal is to get an estimate back from Caltrans sometime this summer."

Last summer, when the authority issued a draft report detailing route options between Merced and Fresno, officials estimated that the highway relocation may cost about $142 million. Burcar said the actual price could be higher or lower, depending on the cost that Caltrans comes up with.

The cost, she added, is included in the overall estimate of $1.5 billion to $2 billion for the construction work through Fresno.

Fellenz said Caltrans will be expected to handle right-of-way acquisitions, perform design and construction, and manage the highway relocation project.

The authority, in addition to the cost to acquire the property, is required by law to pick up the cost of relocating businesses that would be displaced by the moved-over highway -- and anywhere else along the route through the state.

The effects on businesses are not lost on Fresno city leaders. Last month, City Council members Clint Olivier, Andreas Borgeas and Lee Brand said they are worried about the loss of jobs, sales- and property-tax revenue from businesses that are forced to close or move.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has said many times that she is working with businesses and with the rail authority to make sure the state lives up to its commitment to provide business assistance.

On Thursday, the Fresno City Council may take up a proposal by Council Member Larry Westerlund to set up an internal team at City Hall to work specifically with owners of businesses directly affected by the project. Westerlund also hopes to establish city policies to speed the time that it takes to review plans and approve permits for relocating businesses.

"This is a huge project and there are a whole lot of moving parts," Westerlund said Tuesday. "The city's attitude in this is incredibly important, and we need to be business-friendly and move judiciously through the process."

Westerlund said the city's message to affected businesses must be that "whatever we can do to help you, we're here to help you."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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