Substantial changes may be coming Thursday on the proposed route for high-speed trains through Fresno as the state seeks to save tens of millions of dollars in construction costs.
Engineers will ask the California High-Speed Rail Authority board to remove two route options from consideration through the city, change miles of elevated tracks on the remaining route to a ground-level line, and study an alternative site for a downtown station.
A portion of the line may also be trenched to run high-speed tracks under a highway and a freight rail line.
The board's decision will point the way for the ongoing environmental review of route options on what is planned as the first stretch of high-speed tracks.
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The authority hopes to begin building the 120-mile stretch from Fresno to Bakersfield in 2012 -- the initial piece of a planned 800-mile system connecting California's major cities.
The recommended revisions for the Fresno-Bakersfield section, as well as between Merced and Fresno, come after months of what the authority calls "value engineering."
"The authority is looking at what they believed were going to be the really high-cost sections of this construction section," said Bart Bohn, a former Fresno County chief administrator who is now a program manager for URS Corp., a consultant on the Fresno-Bakersfield line.
A question of cost
The authority estimates the cost to build the system from San Francisco to Los Angeles at about $43 billion.
But others, including the group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, suggest that the price will be much higher -- perhaps as much as $65 billion or more.
"I think it's an acknowledgment of how far over budget they were," said Elizabeth Alexis, a CARRD representative from Palo Alto. "But why weren't they looking at lower-cost options two years ago?"
Authority leaders said such alternatives were considered earlier but ruled out because of potential environmental effects on homes, businesses, agriculture and wildlife.
Now engineers are weighing the cost of managing, rather than avoiding, those effects.
Because the environmental assessments are incomplete and engineering designs are only about 15% done, officials say it's premature to estimate how much money the new alternatives could save if they are adopted.
The federal government has committed about $3 billion for building the first section in the Valley.
The state plans to match that money with about $2.5 billion from Proposition 1A, a bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.
"Initially, the alignment from Fresno to Bakersfield would include 45 miles of elevated structures," Bohn told a Caltrans/Amtrak California advisory committee in Fresno last week. "That's a huge cost."
Depending on which options are chosen by the authority after an environmental review this year or in early 2012, that could be whittled to as little as 15 miles of elevated tracks, Bohn said.
Down to earth
In Fresno, instead of miles of track soaring 60 feet above the city, Bohn said the only aerial tracks would cross the San Joaquin River at the Fresno-Madera county line and cross over Highway 99 near Calwa.
The rest of the route, just west of the Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks along Golden State Boulevard and Highway 99, would be at ground level with overpasses to carry major streets over the line.
North of downtown Fresno, a 11/2-mile trench would take the high-speed line underground to go beneath Highway 180 and avoid severing the existing San Joaquin Valley Railroad freight line.
Two route options would be taken off the table for future study: one on the east side of the Union Pacific rail line, and one that crosses from the west side of the Union Pacific line to the east side in central Fresno.
Engineers also want to study an alternate site for a downtown passenger station for high-speed trains.
A site at Mariposa Street, between Fresno and Tulare streets, would be evaluated along with an earlier alternative at Kern Street near the Chukchansi Park stadium.
A station at either site would be at ground level, rather than elevated as had been proposed.
In Merced, proposed changes include eliminating aerial tracks in favor of an at-grade line and downtown station.
A new alternative also is being proposed for study on the line that would connect the Valley portion of the line near Chowchilla to Gilroy and San Jose.
Authority officials say the route -- which would run near Highway 152, Avenue 24 and Avenue 21 in western Madera County -- was developed to address concerns about the effects of the tracks on agriculture and business.