A two-mile stretch of one of the busiest highways in the central San Joaquin Valley will have to scoot over by 100 feet to make way for high-speed rail.
The relocation of Highway 99 in west-central Fresno is just one of the big changes in store if the massive rail project is built.
Dozens of railroad crossings would close, and new overpasses and undercrossings would be built on country roads and city streets. With trains moving at up to 220 mph, there won't be any gated railroad crossings on the high-speed line.
On the other hand, some officials say that could ease traffic congestion and cut down on noise from freight train horns.
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The roadway changes are among the details packed into 10,000 or so pages of draft environmental-impact reports for the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections.
The reports were released last week for 45 days of public comment, and they are sure to generate reaction from affected businesses and residents, as well as city officials across the Valley.
The result would be sweeping changes to the Valley's transportation landscape.
The most visible and dramatic change is likely to be shifting a two-mile portion of Highway 99 between Ashlan and Clinton avenues. That's where the six-lane freeway snuggles up against a Union Pacific Railroad yard, leaving no room to shoehorn the new high-speed tracks into their planned route.
Moving a freeway
City officials worry that shoving Highway 99 westward by 100 feet or so, and closing three offramps in the vicinity, would displace established businesses on the west side of the freeway, and also disrupt traffic on nearby neighborhood streets.
"When they move it over, they are proposing to eliminate southbound ramps at Dakota, Shields and Princeton avenues," City Engineer Scott Mozier said. "We're worried about access in that area."
"If we're going to support closing those ramps, both Clinton and Ashlan need to be able to handle the added traffic," Mozier said. "And that's not just the freeway on- and offramps, but the local street pattern. ... As we start to look at streets like Brawley, Valentine, Marks and Shields avenues, there may be improvements necessary."
And the city likely will be looking to the rail authority to shoulder the cost of that work.
The rail authority estimates it would cost about $142 million to rebuild the two-mile portion of freeway. Authority representatives don't know yet if Caltrans, the state's highway department, would be asked to share a portion of the cost.
But Caltrans may not have the money. Even without a high-speed rail line, the agency has been talking about closing the Dakota and Princeton ramps, Mozier said, "but they have not had any funding to deal with that."
Elsewhere in Fresno, the rail authority plans to shift a 4.5-mile stretch of Golden State Boulevard between Herndon and Ashlan avenues, and to close another portion of Golden State between Olive and Belmont avenues next to Roeding Park. South of downtown Fresno, portions of G Street and Railroad Avenue could be closed.
Those streets aren't particularly scenic, "but there are a number of vibrant, industrial-type businesses out there, they employ a lot of folks, and they are critical to the local economy," Mozier said. They include trucking depots, warehouses, metal fabricators, automotive and diesel repair facilities and other industrial enterprises.
The city expects the authority to compensate businesses affected by the project, including relocation assistance if they are forced to move. "The city also definitely wants to see those businesses retained in the local community," Mozier added.
The changes to Golden State could mean trouble for Fresno's zoo as well.
At Roeding Park, where a new Chaffee Zoo master plan calls for a main entrance from Golden State, the city will press to maintain the road at least as a two-lane access street. "It does not need to be a four-lane there," Mozier said. "But we are very concerned about access to the new zoo entrance."
But Mozier said Fresno also looks forward to improved traffic flow and safety near the tracks, including new overpasses or undercrossings where cars now must wait for freight trains. The new structures will take streets over or under both the high-speed tracks and the existing Union Pacific freight line.
"It's one of those things you don't think about until you're trying to get where you're going, and then here comes the train," Mozier said. "Every now and then they can be stopped for a long period of time."
Overpasses would mean freight trains won't have to sound their air horns at crossings. "We would essentially have a de facto railroad quiet zone along the Union Pacific line," Mozier said.
South of downtown Fresno, things are more complicated. The city is worried about closing several railroad crossings, including Van Ness Avenue -- where an iconic arch proclaims the entrance to "the best little city in the U.S.A."
"That's an industrial area we've been seeking to develop and have prosper," Mozier said. "We're really going to be taking a hard look at circulation and how we can keep that area viable."
Concerns and fears
North and south of Fresno, some city leaders anticipate improved traffic flow as overpasses reduce the need for motorists to idle at crossings waiting for trains to pass.
"When you look at the grade-separated crossings that we're going to get ... Merced will be a better city because of high-speed rail," Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs said at a recent rail authority meeting. "There are challenges, but there are engineering solutions."
But others are concerned that the high-speed rails would divide their towns, much as the construction of Highway 99 did decades ago. In Chowchilla, the mayor wants no part of tracks running through the small farming city.
Chowchilla sits in what Mayor David Alexander calls a "spaghetti bowl" surrounded by potential high-speed rail routes. Between two main options -- one along the Union Pacific rail line and Highway 99, the other along the Burlington Northern tracks a few miles to the east -- and one "hybrid" route that includes parts of both, there are also variations and bypasses and several alternatives for westward lines toward Gilroy and San Jose.
Alexander fears tracks through the city will disrupt the ability of residents, emergency vehicles, school buses and others to get from one side of town to the other. He also is worried about businesses that would be forced to move to make way for the tracks.
Chowchilla officials say the effects will be less if the rails go through the countryside. "I don't like the city taking a position against our farmers," Alexander said. "But it's a matter of what has the least impact on the city."
Outside the cities, farmers up and down the Valley have their own set of concerns.
Since no roads can cross the tracks at grade, farmers want to know how far the nearest crossings are from their farms, and how much more it will cost for them to drive their equipment the extra miles to reach fields and orchards on the other side of the tracks.
"We don't understand how they're going to compensate you fairly for adding five or seven miles driving your farm equipment every day to get to the other side of your place," said Frank Oliveira, a Hanford-area farmer who has been a vocal critic of the authority's proposed route through Kings County.
In the countryside along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route options from Merced through the Tulare-Kern county line, about 27 existing rural rail crossings would be closed. But plans call for more than 60 new crossings over or under the high-speed tracks.
In areas where farms are bisected by the tracks -- a particular complaint in Kings County as the line would slice diagonally through some properties east of Hanford -- the environmental reports state that the authority's agents can work with farmers to arrange for underpasses or small overcrossings to get to the other side of their land.
Rail authority representatives said that in response to agriculture's worries, the environmental-impact reports include more overpasses or undercrossings for country roads than were originally planned.
"There would be grade-separated crossings, usually overpasses," officials wrote in an email. Those crossings would be placed "about every one to two miles to provide local residents and farm operations continued convenient access."