SACRAMENTO -- New changes to proposed high-speed train tracks through Fresno mean residents won't see miles of elevated rails above the city.
Instead, the only elevated tracks would be at the south end of Fresno to cross over Highway 99 as the route heads toward Hanford. Earlier proposals included as much as 14 miles of tracks running atop viaducts up to 60 feet above Fresno's streets.
The plans approved Thursday by the California High Speed Rail Authority also include an alternative site for a passenger station in downtown Fresno.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin had objected to long stretches of elevated tracks through Fresno. She and other city officials welcomed the change of plans. But challenges still loom because the only remaining route being considered in Fresno threatens to consume a portion of Roeding Park -- a major concern for leaders.
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Fresno is the northern end of what's planned as the first section to be built in California's proposed 800-mile high-speed rail system. Trains traveling at up to 220 mph would connect the state's major urban areas, first from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Later sections would serve Sacramento and San Diego.
The authority hopes to complete its environmental reviews, award construction contracts and begin building the section between Fresno and Bakersfield by late 2012.
Thursday's action eliminated two Fresno route alternatives that would have put the high-speed line on the east side of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The Union Pacific tracks run parallel to Highway 99 and Golden State Boulevard and roll between downtown Fresno and the Chinatown district.
Now, the only remaining option that will go through a detailed environmental and engineering analysis is on the west side of the Union Pacific tracks. It will likely displace portions of Golden State Boulevard through central Fresno, including along Roeding Park.
In the revised plans, a 1.5-mile trench would carry high-speed trains beneath the existing San Joaquin Valley Railroad freight tracks and nearby Highway 180.
Engineers also added an alternative station location along the Union Pacific tracks at Mariposa Street, which will be studied along with an earlier station site at Kern Street.
At-grade tracks for high-speed trains would close about eight streets that cross the Union Pacific line. In their place, four overpasses would be built to carry traffic over both the high-speed and Union Pacific freight lines.
The ground-level line would make high-speed trains less of a nuisance to neighbors' ears and eyes, said Bob Schaevitz, a project manager for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section. With new street overpasses over both the high-speed and freight tracks, traffic wouldn't back up and freight trains would not have to use horns.
City officials believe the authority should do even more, however.
"We're very pleased with the at-grade option, and we're very pleased with the addition of another station location at Mariposa," Katie Stevens, a spokeswoman for Swearengin, told the authority board Thursday. "That's our preferred station location and we're pleased that it's been added."
But, Stevens said, there are issues that must be addressed. That includes the threat to Roeding Park, on Golden State Boulevard between Olive and Belmont avenues.
An underground trench
That's why Swearengin, in a letter Wednesday to authority CEO Roelof van Ark, proposed putting both the high-speed tracks and the neighboring Union Pacific line in an underground trench between Olive Avenue and Highway 41 south of downtown.
If Union Pacific won't cooperate, "the next best feasible option would be to utilize a trench only for the HSR tracks" between Olive and 41, and rebuilding Golden State Boulevard on top of the trenched tracks.
Swearengin said that would avoid any disruption of Roeding Park and is the second-best option for downtown development around the HSR station.
Schaevitz said the at-grade changes through Fresno and elsewhere in the Valley are the result of "value engineering" in which managers are not only evaluating the potential environmental effects of various alternatives, but also looking for where they can save money -- perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.
Stretches of aerial tracks are also being removed from several route alternatives still being considered between Merced and Fresno, said Dick Wenzel, a project manager for the north Valley.
By putting both passenger stations in downtown Fresno and downtown Merced at ground level as well as the tracks themselves, Wenzel estimated that the authority could save $700 million to $1 billion in construction costs.
South of Fresno, engineers have been tinkering with the route alternatives, looking for ways to avoid not only more farms and dairies than necessary, but also some wetlands habitat south of Hanford.
But Schaevitz said it's nearly impossible to avoid any negative effects with any route.
He cited a little neighborhood east of Hanford, profiled by The Bee in February, as an example.
Of about two dozen homesites in the neighborhood, "a minimum of half of those would be affected by the alignment," Schaevitz said. "They would have to be purchased and those homes removed and relocated."