Final high-speed rail report for Merced-Fresno issued

The Fresno BeeApril 20, 2012 

A train travels through a wind farm in an illustration from the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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A 32-chapter report intended to be the final word on the effects of high-speed trains between Merced and Fresno was released Friday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

It is unlikely, though, to change the minds of farmers and others who are worried about how high-speed rail may alter their farms, businesses, homes or communities.

"They're looking at the potential for 30 road closures in my district," said Madera County Supervisor David Rogers, who represents the Chowchilla area. "It's going to be an emergency-access nightmare, and it's going to be very difficult for a farmer to navigate his operation when he has to go six miles out of his way to get from one side of his farm to the other."

The final version of the authority's environmental impact report details the anticipated effects on farmland, habitat, residents, businesses and communities on the 60-mile stretch between Fresno and Merced. It also explains why the preferred route wanders between the Union Pacific Railroad/Highway 99 corridor and the BNSF Railway line a few miles to the east.

"Whatever selection we make, whatever the decision might be, we cannot avoid the impacts for the people who are opposed to this," said Tom Richards of Fresno, the rail authority's vice chairman and its only representative from the central San Joaquin Valley. "But it's our job to try to get this done as economically and efficiently as we can, and as environmentally responsibly as possible."

The route identified in the EIR is considered a "hybrid" between two options: one that primarily follows the UP/Highway 99 corridor through the heart of cities such as Chowchilla and Madera, and one along the BNSF freight tracks that farmers complained would have consumed more agricultural acreage. The report concludes that the hybrid route would create fewer problems by avoiding the Merced County towns of Planada and LeGrand and by weaving eastward around the city of Madera.

Between Merced and downtown Fresno, the hybrid route would displace 186 to 213 homes. Between 217 and 237 businesses would face the same fate. The route also would affect 1,273 to 1,426 acres of prime or important farmland.

That compares to the UP/99 option, which would displace 193 to 228 homes, and the BNSF route, which would uproot between 215 and 244 homes. The UP/99 line would affect fewer farm acres -- 1,027 to 1,149; the number of acres affected by the BNSF line would be greater, 1,417 to 1,483.

"Overall, in balancing the effects on natural and community resources, the hybrid alternative minimizes environmental impacts the most," the report said.

The report adds that the hybrid route would be the easiest and cheapest to build among the three options, at approximately $450 million less than the BNSF alternative and more than $1 billion less than the UP/99 alternative.

That will be little consolation to farmers whose property is in the path of the tracks and would be asked to sell some of their acreage for the rail right of way.

"If anything has been the bane of my existence, it's been high-speed rail," said Rogers, the Madera County supervisor. "The state's approach has been convoluted, and it's the most egregious violation of personal property rights I've ever seen."

Rogers said he is "horrified" by the number of farms likely to be severed by the line and also worries about possible restrictions on crop dusting and other farm chemical applications near the tracks. "You can't tell me they're not going to eliminate aerial spraying where those trains are going through," Rogers said.

The EIR proposes a couple of options for dealing with farming issues, including providing underpasses for farm equipment to get from one side of the tracks to the other or additional compensation for farmers who can show a hardship from farms being severed.

The report states that the authority also would establish a program to consolidate isolated "remnant parcels" created when tracks bisect property. Those parcels would be sold to neighboring landowners on the same side of the track.

The report said state and federal officials "expect that productive farmland would be farmed in some manner, and not left idle in perpetuity."

While the environmental report defines a preferred north-south route between Merced and Fresno, questions remain over how the route would go through or around Chowchilla. The answers will depend on how state rail planners decide to connect the Merced-Fresno line with the Bay Area.

Chowchilla sits amid a virtual spaghetti bowl of lines on a map for an east-west connection to Gilroy and San Jose. Different options for what planners call the "Chowchilla Wye" swoop either east, west or south of the city. The Chowchilla City Council has gone on the record opposing any route that comes through town.

Richards said he understands that feelings will continue to run high over the route: "I know the farming interests are as much interested in the Chowchilla Wye as they are with anything else on the route."

The environmental report "isn't necessarily going to change anyone's mind, because they've already established their position," Richards said. "But the intent of the report is to provide the information we can rely on to decide which is better among the alternatives.

"The logic of the hybrid makes a lot more sense to me."

In letters to the state rail authority, both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed that the hybrid route appears to be the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative."

The environmental report follows up on a draft report published last summer for two months of comments and critique from the public and a slew of local, state and federal government agencies. Nearly 900 comments were made from August to October; comments and responses account for 16 chapters -- 3,066 pages -- in the final report. The final report incorporates those comments and the responses of engineers and planners to address those concerns.

Those comments are in addition to several thousand pages of analysis and 52 technical reports in support of the EIR.

"I think basically the document probably goes a long way to support why we thought the hybrid is the preferred alignment," Richards said.

The state rail authority's board is expected to formally certify the report at a two-day meeting May 2-3 in Fresno; the Federal Railroad Administration likely will approve the report by June. Those approvals would clear the way for the authority to begin buying the right of way it needs along the chosen route and award the first construction contracts later this year -- if the state Assembly and Senate agree to allocate about $6 billion for the project.



HSR BOARD IN FRESNO

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board will hold public meetings May 2-3 at the Fresno Convention Center, starting at 10 a.m. each day. On May 2, the authority's board will receive a presentation and public comment on the final environmental impact report for the Merced- Fresno section. On May 3, the board will consider certifying the report and approving the project.

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

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