For the better part of a year, plans for a high-speed rail line through Fresno have included miles of elevated tracks soaring 60 feet above the central city streetscape.
Now, in a surprise to many observers, engineers are evaluating where tracks can be built at ground level instead as a way to save money.
The about-face by the California High-Speed Rail Authority comes amid rising concerns over the cost of the train system and fears about the noise and aesthetics of overhead tracks in communities. The new strategy, called "value engineering," was publicly acknowledged this month by the rail authority's CEO, Roelof van Ark.
The authority hopes to begin construction in late 2012 on its first 120-mile section of high-speed train tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield. It would be the first stretch of what is ultimately planned as an 800-mile system, connecting the state's major urban centers with trains traveling up to 220 mph.
A year ago, engineers had ruled out several at-grade route options through Fresno as being impractical or too disruptive to traffic and nearby neighborhoods. More streets would have to be closed or relocated, and construction would be complicated by having to build new over- and undercrossings for major streets, and rebuild overcrossings for Highways 41 and 180.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is glad to see that ground-level tracks are back on the table.
"We're positive about the approach [the authority] is taking," said Swearengin, who has been supportive of high-speed rail -- and the economic spark she says it could provide for the city. "The city is strong in its push for design alternatives that work for the city and its residents."
What doesn't work for Fresno, she added, is a continuous six- to eight-mile stretch of elevated tracks above central and downtown Fresno.
"From very early on, I had deep concerns about elevated tracks through our city," Swearengin said last week.
Such structures, she said, would create "a visual dividing wall in our community," in much the same way that Highway 99 created a social and economic divide when it was built through the city decades ago.
To elevate or not?
Three possible routes through Fresno remain on the drawing board and are going through detailed state and federal reviews of potential effects on the environment, traffic, public safety, cost and disruption to the community.
All three lines generally run along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks between the San Joaquin River and downtown. South of downtown, the lines curve south to follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks.
Since last spring, all three options have depicted tracks gradually rising near Clinton Avenue and continuing southward on a raised guideway to an elevated downtown station. South of downtown, the tracks would gradually return to ground level near Central Avenue.
One line runs along the west edge of the Union Pacific right-of-way from Clinton Avenue all the way through downtown. Another starts on the west side of the UP tracks and crosses overhead to the east side of the tracks near McKinley Avenue. It remains on the east side through downtown before curving southward out of town.
Then there's a hybrid route that starts on the west side of the UP tracks, crosses to the east near Olive Avenue to avoid Roeding Park, and weaves back to the west near Highway 180 to continue through downtown.
"What we're looking at now on those three elevated options is where we can make them at-grade," said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the high-speed rail authority. "We're looking at design solutions to reduce the cost without diminishing performance."
Reducing the number of overhead structures not only lowers the cost of the project, Wall said, "it reduces the visual and environmental impacts for communities."
Among those potential impacts is how the high-speed line may affect Roeding Park, the city's 159-acre regional park that is home to the Chaffee Zoo, the Storyland and Playland attractions, tennis courts and picnic areas.
The park, bounded on the east side by Golden State Boulevard, is a major consideration for both rail engineers and the city.
The high-speed rail option that runs along the west edge of the Union Pacific would require relocating Golden State Boulevard. Doing so would carve a significant swath -- between 60 and 128 feet -- from the park's eastern side. That could potentially intrude into a proposed expansion of the Chaffee Zoo and disrupt plans to create an entrance into the park from Golden State.
Swearengin said the city is standing firm on having the tracks avoid the park. "Our input to the authority is that they have to find an engineering solution that does not affect the park, the green space or the zoo," she said.
Parks create other considerations for high-speed rail planners because of federal laws that require transportation projects to avoid parks whenever possible.
"I know our team is working on a solution that won't impact the park property at all," Wall said.
The other two route options on the drawing board that swing the rail line to the east would avoid Roeding Park, but require at least some stretch of elevated track to carry high-speed trains over the existing Union Pacific line.
Street patterns and traffic flow will depend on how the tracks are built. But whether the tracks are up in the sky or on the ground, homes, businesses and other facilities in the path will be uprooted on any of the three route options through Fresno.
That's in addition to the potential effects on Roeding Park or historic buildings near downtown, including the Southern Pacific Depot or two buildings in Chinatown.
East of Roeding Park, Weber Avenue runs along the east side of the Union Pacific rails. Residents whose properties back up against Weber Avenue say they've not heard anything specific from state rail officials about what may happen to their homes.
"I don't know much about it, just that they want to come through here somewhere," said Al Vasquez, who has lived on Esther Way for more than 35 years.
Vasquez, 93, said he's grown used to the sound of occasional freight trains that rumble by several times a day just yards behind his back fence. But, he added, "I'd be more than happy to sell the property" to the authority to make way for high-speed tracks.
Two doors down, Jim Keller bought his home in 2007. If the rail authority opts to build its tracks on the east side of the Union Pacific line, Keller fears that officials won't be willing to make up for what he invested near the height of the housing bubble or the improvements he's made to the home since.
"I don't mind it going behind my backyard," he said. "But I mind it in my yard."
He said he knew when he bought the home that the high-speed tracks might be built near the neighborhood. But, he added, the authority isn't keeping him or his neighbors informed of how plans might affect their properties.
"I've decided to live as though it's not happening," he said. If the system does ultimately displace his home, Keller said, he's willing to listen to offers. But if the offers leave him underwater on the investment, he's prepared to go to court for a condemnation trial on the property value.
Swearengin said the displacement of homes, businesses and streets are "major execution risks" that are part of any major public transportation project. But the cost of dealing with those effects, she added, will come out of the rail authority's pocket, not the city's.
"A big part of this is how the authority will mitigate those risks," she added. "They know we're going to require that, if they're going to have our support for this project."