State panel vote may clear path for high-speed rail land deals

The Fresno BeeNovember 5, 2012 

A vote today at the state Capitol could clear the way for buying land needed for high-speed rail right of way through the central San Joaquin Valley.

The state Public Works Board, which includes the directors of the state's Finance, General Services and Transportation departments, will meet at 10 a.m. to consider streamlining the purchase of about 1,100 parcels along the California High-Speed Rail Authority's proposed train route between Madera and Bakersfield. The 130-mile stretch would become the backbone of a statewide system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Between 400 and 500 parcels are likely needed for the first section, where work is proposed to start next year, from northeast of Madera to south of Fresno.

The Public Works Board is the agency in charge of buying land for highway projects and other transportation projects in the state. And while the rail authority, through consultants, expects to negotiate contracts with property owners along the route, it's formally up to the Public Works Board to consider every deal.

Ordinarily, each land deal comes before the board at its monthly meetings. But with so many parcels needed for the Valley stretch of the high-speed rail line -- and thousands more in the Bay Area and Southern California in future years -- the board today will consider approving a standard contract and delegating oversight to its executive staff.

The rail authority anticipates spending as much as $40 million to buy the land it needs in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. It's in the process of picking companies to handle the appraisals and negotiations with Valley property owners. The authority's board could be asked to award consulting contracts at its meeting Nov. 14 in Sacramento. Once those contracts take effect, property owners could start getting offers from right of way agents yet this year or in early 2013. The authority wants to have all of the Valley parcels it needs by no later than spring 2016.

None of that can happen, however, until the Public Works Board gives the authority a green light.

This is the third time this year that the Public Works Board has been asked to OK a step in the high-speed rail project. In March, the board approved conditions for the first section of the proposed rail construction between Madera and the south end of Fresno. And in May, the board delegated its authority for setting compensation for landowners whose property is needed for the right of way on the Madera-Bakersfield stretch of the line. Also in May, the board signed off on having attorneys for the rail authority and Caltrans represent the agency if eminent domain or condemnation is needed to acquire property from owners who are unwilling to sell.

The agency directors who are the formal members of the Public Works Board -- Finance Director Ana Matosantos, General Services director Fred Klass and Transportation Director Malcolm Dougherty -- are all Cabinet appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown, a staunch supporter of the high-speed rail project. Frequently, however, those directors' deputies attend the board's meetings and vote in their stead.

Key hearing next week

The next key hearing for California high-speed rail is next week in Sacramento. Opponents of the rail project from Madera, Fresno and Merced counties are suing the high-speed rail authority over its May approval of the Merced-to-Fresno portion of the line. A hearing is set for Nov. 16 on their motion for an injunction to stop the effort in its tracks until the full lawsuit can be decided next year.

In court documents filed last month, the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus, Chowchilla Water District, Madera County and others are asking a judge to block the rail authority from awarding construction contracts; designing and engineering the project; surveying or negotiating with property owners; or spending any more money on the Merced-Fresno section.

Opponents argue in court papers that without an injunction to block the agency from buying property, the rail line "would cut a 75-mile swath of destruction" through the San Joaquin Valley and "deal a crushing blow to the regional economy and the Valley's rich agricultural heritage."

Attorneys for the rail authority countered that delays caused by an injunction could jeopardize more than $3 billion pledged by the Federal Railroad Administration to jump-start California's high-speed rail construction in the Valley. The authority estimates the cost of the Madera-Bakersfield section at about $6 billion.

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

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