It's not actual construction, but the appearance of a large crane and workers assembling steel rebar marks a significant test as high-speed rail engineers design a major bridge near Madera.
Workers for Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, the contracting consortium hired to design and build the first 29-mile stretch between Madera and Fresno of a statewide bullet-train line, spent Tuesday wiring together a steel-frame tubular cage, about 10 feet in diameter. Once the cage is completed, it will be fitted with sensors and lowered by crane into an 80-foot-deep hole to be filled with concrete, said Hugo Mejia, design and construction manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
"This represents one of our first major activities to support design," Mejia said. "The information they get from this ... they will take back and use for the design of their bridges."
It's called a load test pile, and once the concrete is cured, engineers will stress the buried structure to its breaking point "so they know what forces it takes to fail it," Mejia said. Where and how it fails will help engineers determine the best design for a 1,000-foot viaduct, or elevated track, to span the Fresno River, Highway 145 and Raymond Road at the eastern edge of Madera.
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While the testing site on the north side of Highway 145 and just west of the BNSF Railway freight tracks is eye-catching, the rail authority notes that it's only testing for engineering designs as the agency continues to acquire the land it needs for the railroad right of way.
Diana Gomez, the agency's Central Valley regional director, said the authority has secured between 40 and 50 parcels from landowners so far, out of about 400 parcels needed in the Madera-Fresno segment.
"I'd say in the next month or so you're going to start seeing quite a bit of activity," Gomez said. "Once they get all the data and finalize the design, you're going to see a lot of activity out here ... and in the city of Fresno.
Gomez said some building demolition work in downtown Fresno is likely to be the first substantial pre-construction activity that people will notice over the next month or two. She said some events are planned next week in Fresno to let residents know about progress and demolition that they'll see.
"Our concern is vandalism. Once we get a property, we don't want a lot of vacant buildings, so as we're acquiring property as they're being vacated, we want to move in and start doing some of that demolition work," Gomez said.
California has about $3 billion in federal transportation and stimulus funds for high-speed rail construction in the San Joaquin Valley. But one of the strings attached to that money is that it must be spent in the region and work must be substantially completed by late 2017. California must also come up with almost $3 billion of its own money to match the federal contribution.
While the test piling in Madera looks like a potential sign of progress, the rail project still faces the prospect of political, financial and legal derailment by opponents. Republican legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., continue to press efforts to cut off funding for project, which carries an estimated price tag of almost $70 billion for its San Francisco-Los Angeles stages.
Three court cases are pending with the state's Third District Court of Appeal over its route from the Bay Area to the San Joaquin Valley; whether the statewide bullet-train plan complies with Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond approved by voters in 2008; and whether a state board acted properly to authorize the sale of Prop. 1A bonds needed to underwrite construction in the Valley.
In addition, six new lawsuits have been filed in Sacramento County Superior Court challenging the California High-Speed Rail Authority's environmental certification and approval of its Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment. And this week, a Bay Area transportation advocacy organization sued the California Air Resources Board in Fresno County Superior Court. The lawsuit is an effort to reverse the board's approval of high-speed rail's eligibility for cap-and-trade money from the state's greenhouse-gas reduction program and overturn the state Legislature's subsequent approval of $250 million in cap-and-trade funds in the 2014-15 budget for the project.