SACRAMENTO -- Work to shift part of Highway 99 through central Fresno to make way for high-speed train tracks may not begin until at least early 2014.
That's the official expectation after the California High-Speed Rail Authority voted Thursday to approve an agreement with Caltrans for moving the 2.5-mile stretch of the highway between Ashlan and Clinton avenues.
The agreement, worth up to $226 million, calls for Caltrans to work as a contractor for the rail authority. The state highway agency will be responsible for design and construction to nudge the highway over by about 100 feet to accommodate new high-speed train tracks between the highway and the adjacent Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks.
But motorists should not expect that work to snarl traffic on that portion of Highway 99 anytime soon, authority CEO Jeff Morales said.
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"Construction on the actual relocation of 99 is probably at least 18 months to 24 months off," Morales said Thursday. "What will be happening in the next few months is some of the preliminary work -- the design work, the right of way, dealing with the businesses along the route."
Thomas Fellenz, the authority's chief counsel, said Caltrans expects to subcontract the construction work. He told board members that consultants for the authority had estimated the project at about $195 million. Caltrans reported that its estimates ranged from $166 million to just less than $226 million.
The rail authority board authorized a budget of $225,900,000 for the work, which includes acquiring property from businesses located in the project's path.
Caltrans will be responsible for designing the project, which will displace a string of businesses that sit along the west side of the highway. A frontage road and three off-ramps will also be affected.
Co-vice chairman Tom Richards, a Fresno developer, excused himself from the discussion and vote out of what he called "an abundance of caution" to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. Caltrans is a tenant in one of his company's buildings.
Lynn Schenk, a board member from San Diego and a former secretary of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency that includes Caltrans, expressed some concern with the agreement.
"I'm very excited because this is the first time we're going to shovel dirt," she said. "But I've seen these movies before, and sometimes the endings aren't so great."
Schenk said her concern is the amount of money involved in the construction. "There are lots of opportunities for everything from mismanagement to theft. We need to keep an eagle eye on that."
Morales, a former head of Caltrans, said he is mindful of the concern and said he will work directly with Caltrans "to make sure these funds are spent appropriately."
Deadline still in sight
Work on the first stretches of the 520-mile statewide system still is planned to start in the Fresno area in early 2013.
The Highway 99 relocation is only part of that first construction segment. The authority is awaiting bids from up to five teams of contractors for a stretch that spans from southwest of Madera to the south end of Fresno. The agency anticipates that first construction segment to cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion and hopes to award a contract later this year.
The bids were initially anticipated in September, but Morales said the authority may give contractors more time for their proposals.
He added that he does not expect the 11/2- to 2-year wait on the Highway 99 relocation, or pushing back the bidding date for contractors, to endanger the agency's ability to complete the Madera-to-Bakersfield sections by September 2017 -- the deadline for spending about $3.5 billion in federal stimulus funds awarded to the authority by the Obama administration.
"That's still the deadline, and we think we can meet it," Morales said. "What we're hearing from the contractors is that they believe they can meet that schedule."
Later this month, the authority will be holding industry forums to gauge the interest of potential prime contractors and small-business subcontractors on future portions of the Madera-to-Bakersfield route.
"There will be different pieces going at different times," Morales said. "It all has to tie together, and in the time frame to get it done on time."
He added that construction on different portions of the route will be happening at the same time up and down the Valley instead of only one section at a time.
Residents feel hurried
The Highway 99 work is included in the Merced-to-Fresno section, for which environmental reports were certified in May. But a handful of Kings County residents made the trip to Sacramento on Thursday to complain about the release of a revised draft environmental report for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section.
The report was originally issued a year ago but was recalled in the fall so revisions could be made. The revised report was reissued in mid-July, and the public has until Sept. 20 to submit comments on the document and its technical attachments -- more than 30,000 pages in all.
Frank Oliveira, a Hanford farmer, and others who spoke during a public-comment period said the 60 days allowed for the public to review and comment on the new Fresno-to-Bakersfield report is not enough.
"Sixty days is unreasonable if you really want public participation," Oliveira said. "We request 180 days, or 120 days if the state would make the documents more readily available to the public."
Oliveira said a person would have to read hundreds of pages a day, seven days a week, to slog through the mass of documents. But, he added, there are only 10 locations in Kings County, including public libraries, where the report is available to read. None are open on weekends, he said, and most are open during regular business hours, limiting the opportunities for review.
Public hearings on the revised environmental report are scheduled for late August in Bakersfield, Hanford and Fresno.