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.
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