High-speed rail agency issues final environmental report for Fresno-Bakersfield route

The Fresno BeeApril 18, 2014 

An artist's rendition of California's high-speed rail.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SW PARRA — The Fresno Bee

A final version of an environmental report has been issued for the Fresno-Bakersfield stretch of California's proposed high-speed rail system.

The 20,000-page report, released Friday afternoon by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, details the anticipated effects that construction of the rail line and operation of the bullet train would have on homes, businesses, farmland and wildlife habitat on the 114-mile route from downtown Fresno to downtown Bakersfield.

The report also describes the measures that the authority will take to minimize or make up for any environmental harm from the train system in the region.

The rail authority's board will be asked to certify the report and finalize a route for the Fresno-Bakersfield segment at a two-day meeting May 6-7 in Fresno.

The final report's release comes more than 21/2 years after the rail agency first issued a draft environmental impact report. After two months of often harsh public comment in the late summer and early fall, the rail authority withdrew its first draft for retooling, including evaluating additional route options through Kings County for a bypass around the city of Hanford and a more thorough examination of environmental concerns.

The authority issued its second draft of the EIR in July 2012, with an initial goal of taking more public comments, providing responses and having a certification vote in early 2013 -- more than a year ago.

"The release of this document represents the culmination of a multi-year effort that included extensive environmental review, preliminary engineering and several opportunities for members of the communities along the alignment to participate in the process," said Jeff Morales, the rail authority's CEO.

The report is available on the rail authority's website as well as on the Federal Railroad Administration's website. Printed and electronic copies of the report have been delivered to libraries in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

The rail authority's staff is recommending a route that roughly follows the BNSF Railway freight rail line southward from Fresno through Kings and Tulare counties and into Kern County. A curving bypass would skirt east of Hanford, and additional bypasses are proposed around the communities of Corcoran and Allensworth before swinging into a station site in downtown Bakersfield. A station could also be built near the eastern edge of Hanford.

In November, the rail board agreed with its staff that the Hanford East bypass and other aspects of the route represented the least environmentally damaging and most practical alternative for the line.

The Fresno-Bakersfield section and an already-approved section between Merced and downtown Fresno are proposed to form the "backbone" in the San Joaquin Valley of a 520-mile high-speed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles on which electric trains would carry passengers at speeds up to 220 mph. The authority wants its first operational segment of the line, between Merced and the Los Angeles basin, to be carrying passengers by 2022.

Even if the rail authority's board certifies the document next month, the report is practically certain to generate lawsuits by project opponents challenging its adequacy under the California Environmental Quality Act. Similar legal challenges were filed almost immediately after the rail board approved its Merced-Fresno EIR in May 2012; all of those lawsuits were eventually settled by the spring of 2013.

CD-ROM copies of the report are available by calling (866) 761-7755.

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

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