Rail board's busy spring includes visit to Fresno for April meeting

The Fresno BeeMarch 29, 2013 

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has yet to break ground in the San Joaquin Valley for its statewide high-speed train system. But that doesn't mean the agency has been standing still.

In just the past couple of weeks, the authority has:

* Asked for approval from state finance officials to authorize the sale of bonds to jump-start construction of high-speed rail in the Valley.

* Filed suit against, well, against just about anyone who might challenge the bond sale in court.

* Gained a new board member, Katherine Perez-Estolano of Pasadena, courtesy of an appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown, reducing to two the number of vacancies remaining on the panel.

on Thursday, April 4, the board will meet in Fresno, Sacramento and San Francisco to learn about route options identified by engineers and planners around Chowchilla and between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Sometime soon, the agency is expected to announce which of five construction teams submitted the lowest qualified bid to build the first stretch of the high-speed line from east of Madera to the south end of Fresno -- a contract anticipated to be worth between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

Later in April, attorneys for the authority and project opponents in Madera and Merced counties will tangle in court in Sacramento over the agency's environmental approval last year of its Merced-Fresno section.

Fresno meeting

Thursday's meeting at Fresno City Hall will focus on Valley issues, including a recommendation for a preferred route between Fresno and Bakersfield. All of the potential options would include at least a portion of Kings County, where the Board of Supervisors opposes any high-speed rail option that runs through the county.

Authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said engineers' recommendations will likely include an endorsement of one of two route options in the Hanford area: one that bypasses the city on the east, and another that skims past the city's western edge. Either way, a Hanford-area station may be in the plan.

Also among potential recommendations to be presented Thursday may be plans to route the tracks either through or around the towns of Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter en route to Bakersfield.

Planners will also present several options in the Chowchilla area of Madera County for connecting the north-south backbone of the rail system to a line that would branch off toward Gilroy and the Bay Area.

At two separate workshops over the past couple of weeks, Fairmead and Chowchilla residents have learned about four prospective alternatives for the "Chowchilla Wye," the Y-shaped junction of the east-west and north-south tracks. Three of the options would run along Highway 152, while a fourth would follow Avenue 21.

Off the table are any alternatives that would run the tracks through the heart of Chowchilla along Highway 99 or the existing Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks -- a key provision of a settlement that led to the city dismissing a lawsuit against the rail authority.

Legal bond wrangling

In two separate special meetings this month, the rail board asked the state Treasurer, Controller and Director of Finance to authorize the sale of more than $9 billion in bonds from Proposition 1-A, the high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.

Part of the money would be combined with more than $3 billion in federal transportation and stimulus fund to pay for building about 120 miles of the high-speed train line from Madera to Bakersfield. The authority hopes to begin construction this summer in the Fresno and Madera areas and continue building south toward Bakersfield by 2018.

In a related move, the authority launched a preemptive lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court last week, essentially serving notice on the entire state of its intention to issue the bonds. The lawsuit, formally called a complaint for validation, asks a judge to rule that the rail agency and the state are acting legally in authorizing the bonds.

The complaint essentially provides a one-time opportunity for anyone to challenge the issuance of the bonds in court. If a judge rules in the authority's favor, the suit asks that any future legal challenges to the bonds be prohibited.

No court date has been set for hearing the authority's complaint. But the action appears to give opponents in Kings County an additional opportunity to take legal swings at the rail authority. The county and two of its residents, John Tos and Aaron Fukuda, already have a trial date set for May 31 on their lawsuit, which alleges that the high-speed rail project violates Prop. 1A in a variety of ways, including that:

* The system as it is now proposed cannot meet the requirement for a nonstop trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes.

* The authority's planned construction between Madera and Bakersfield does not represent a "usable segment" for high-speed trains, as the law requires.

* The agency failed to complete environmental certifications for the entire initial section of high-speed rail through the Valley before preparing to issue bonds.

Madera County suit

Even before the Kings County suit comes to trial, the authority faces an April 19 court date in Sacramento with attorneys for the Madera and Merced county Farm Bureau organizations, the Madera County Board of Supervisors, and others who allege that the rail agency's environmental assessment of the Merced-Fresno section of the rail route was insufficient.

At one point, the rail authority faced three separate legal challenges over its May 2012 approval of the Merced-Fresno stretch of the route. In late January, the city of Chowchilla dropped its suit. A collection of landowners whose properties are in the path of proposed high-speed trains in Madera and Fresno counties dropped their lawsuit in February.

The suit by Madera County and the two farm bureaus focuses largely on claims that the rail authority's Merced-Fresno environmental report did not adequately assess the effects on agriculture of building and operating the train system, nor does it provide sufficient measures to make up for those effects.

In November, a judge dealt all three lawsuits a serious blow when he refused to issue an injunction barring the rail agency from continuing to plan for the start of construction.

If you go

What: California High-Speed Rail Authority board meeting

When: 10 a.m. Thursday, April 4

Where: Fresno City Council chambers, Fresno City Hall, 2600 Fresno St. Teleconference sites will be at Sacramento City Hall in Sacramento and the State of California building in San Francisco.

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

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