A once-scrapped route option for high-speed trains through Kings County is in play again.
A line that bypasses Hanford to the west will be revived by the California High-Speed Rail Authority for consideration. The agency announced Wednesday that it will recall a controversial draft environmental-impact report for its Fresno-Bakersfield section for revisions that are expected to take five to six months.
The delay is based on feedback the rail authority received on the draft environmental report – a massive document of nearly 17,000 pages.
The report's only route considered in the Hanford area veers east around the city and includes plans for a station east of Hanford. But the line has been roundly criticized by Kings County leaders, residents and farmers for its anticipated effects on homes, businesses and agriculture.
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Now, a revised EIR expected for release next spring will reconsider an alternative route that passes west of Hanford. A new station location will also be studied in the revised report, officials said.
A formal two-month public comment period on the draft Fresno-Bakersfield EIR will conclude Oct. 13. Authority officials say that instead of issuing a final version of the document as planned in January, they will instead release a revised draft for the Fresno-Bakersfield section sometime in the spring. That release will start the clock on a 45-day comment period.
Rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark said the delay will not affect plans to start construction late next year in Fresno. Much of the work in the Fresno area is included in a separate draft EIR for the Merced-Fresno section of the system.
The authority will also use the extra time to look for ways to save money on construction of the line.
The choice to revise the Fresno-Bakersfield EIR comes as the rail authority faces a drumbeat of criticism and doubt over its plans and demands for more time for the public to comment.
The J.G. Boswell Co., a giant farming corporation in the Corcoran area, and a cadre of environmental groups had asked the rail authority for at least six months to evaluate the EIR, instead of just 60 days.
Boswell attorney Robert Dowd of Hanford could not be reached Wednesday to comment on the authority's decision. But in a Sept. 8 letter to the authority, Dowd called the two-month comment period "grossly inadequate."
Additionally, opponents in Kings County have threatened to sue the rail authority because the line through Kings County does not stick to an established transportation corridor such as Highway 99 or Interstate 5. Instead, the proposed tracks that generally follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield diverge to bypass Hanford on the east.
A line west of Hanford doesn't get any closer to an established transportation corridor.
Aaron Fukuda, whose home in a rural neighborhood just east of Hanford would be displaced by the current proposal, said he's not sure what to make of Wednesday's announcement.
A west Hanford bypass creates "a whole new alignment of people who don't know what's ahead of them," he said.
"I got into this initially because it impacted my property, but now my reason is to make sure people can participate in the process and get timely information," Fukuda added. "The extra time is definitely greatly appreciated."
Rachel Wall, a spokeswoman for the rail authority, said the revisions won't cost any additional money because the changes will fall under the agency's existing contract with its consultants – $120 million for all of the planning on the Fresno-Bakersfield and Bakersfield-Palmdale sections.
Rail authority officials said they expect to make other revisions based on comments received since mid-August, but reviving a west Hanford bypass is the big change.
A preliminary statewide EIR in 2005 identified a west Hanford bypass as a potential preferred route.
But as planning progressed, other options came into play. The west-of-Hanford bypass was formally dropped from consideration last summer because engineers said it would have greater effects on sensitive wetlands, endangered species habitat and farmland than a route east of Hanford.
A west Hanford bypass would pass between the cities of Lemoore and Hanford, engineers added, discouraging infill development in the area. Also, a station on a west-of-Hanford route would be further away from Visalia and Tulare.
In recent months, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers each urged the state rail authority to continue studying the west Hanford option.
The federal government has a large say in the rail routes because the Obama administration has ponied up about $3 billion in stimulus funds and other transportation money for California's high-speed rail plans. The Federal Railroad Administration is requiring that the money be used to begin construction in the central San Joaquin Valley, and to do so by late 2012.