Feds to streamline high-speed rail approval process

The Fresno BeeSeptember 20, 2012 

President Barack Obama will announce plans Friday to streamline federal evaluation and permitting of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield stretch of California's proposed high-speed train system.

As part of his "We Can't Wait" initiative to speed development of major transportation projects, the president is directing the Federal Railroad Administration to finish its environmental review of the 114-mile section by October 2013. That, according to a White House statement, could shave as much as six months off the process, "enabling the project to meet funding deadlines and an aggressive construction schedule."

The announcement comes just two days after the FRA announced its approval of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's environmental review and route selection for another section of the project -- the Merced-to-Fresno portion. The FRA approval came nearly five months after the state authority's board finished its work on the environmental review.

Together, the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections of the route are planned to form the backbone of a statewide rail line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with trains traveling at up to 220 mph.

The Obama administration is putting up more than $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds to start construction of the rail line in the central San Joaquin Valley. The money comes with conditions that the first 120-mile stretch of the route, between Madera and Bakersfield, is completed by September 2017 -- an ambitious construction schedule for what is generally acknowledged as one of the largest public works projects in California history.

It's also one that has generated considerable controversy. The boards of supervisors in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties and many of the cities along the Fresno-Bakersfield line have taken formal positions opposing the project. Kings County and two of its residents also are suing the state rail authority over the legality of the program.

The FRA and the California rail authority are working on the environmental evaluation of the Fresno-Bakersfield section. A draft environmental report is going through a public comment period that will end next month -- the second time that the report has been through the public wringer.

The first version of the report was issued for comment last summer, but the state rail authority pulled it back to make changes because of concerns raised by the public -- most notably the addition of a second route option through Kings County bypassing Hanford to the west, along with the original bypass option east of the city.

Comments from this round, and planners' responses or changes, will be wrapped into a final version of the report that may be considered by the state rail authority's board in early 2013. Today's announcement by Obama appears aimed at ensuring that FRA follows suit with its decision-making in a timely fashion.

The president is also announcing today a similar directive for the Federal Transit Administration to speed up its permit and review decisions for expansion of the downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal to July 2014.

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

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