The California High-Speed Rail Authority is looking for consultants to help it secure the environmental clearances it needs for its rail sections between San Francisco and the central San Joaquin Valley.
And it has set forth an ambitious schedule for accomplishing that task.
On a 7-0 vote Tuesday in Sacramento, the rail agency’s board authorized the release of a request for qualifications from companies interested in seeking the three-year, $36 million contract. Whoever wins the contract this fall will be expected to crank out two comprehensive draft environmental impact reports in about a year and shepherd them through a yearlong state and federal process of public hearings before final approval, according to Ben Tripousis, the authority’s Northern California regional director.
One report will evaluate the San Francisco-San Jose section of the statewide bullet-train system that will be sharing upgraded and electrified tracks with the Caltrain commuter rail line on the San Francisco Peninsula. The other will encompass the rail segment between San Jose and Chowchilla, including Pacheco Pass through the Diablo mountain range on the Valley’s west side.
Tripousis said both reports will build upon some earlier engineering and environmental analysis that has already been done, including ongoing work evaluating a range of route options for the Chowchilla Wye, a junction between the north-south line from Fresno and the east-west branch toward the Bay Area. In the Bay Area, Caltrain is doing its own environmental impact report for the electrification of its commuter system between San Francisco and San Jose.
Maximum contract value for Bay-to-Valley environmental analyses
Contract term for consultant that is ultimately selected
The rail authority expects to issue its request for companies to submit their qualifications within a few days, and proposals will be due Sept. 14. A contract award is expected by Nov. 17.
The agency wants the winning consulting contractor to develop preliminary route designs and alternatives that will be evaluated in detail for their effects on communities, businesses, residents, agriculture and the environment. An administrative draft report for the 51-mile San Francisco-San Jose section will be due in August 2016 and released for public comment in November 2016. For the San Jose-Chowchilla segment, which spans about 80 miles, an administrative draft is expected by October 2016 to be publicly circulated for comment in November 2016.
Final environmental reports and proposed final routes would be released in April 2017 for San Francisco-San Jose and in May 2017 for San Jose-Chowchilla. Final state certification and approval of the two sections would take place in November 2017, followed by Federal Railroad Administration approval in December 2017.
Several rail board members expressed concern that the schedule might be too optimistic. “Is there any room if we have any slippage, so the program can continue?” asked Thea Selby, a transportation activist who lives in San Francisco. “There are other things going on. I want to make sure we have a little bit of buffer.”
Tripousis was firm that the authority’s schedule was feasible. “We are absolutely committed to a (federal) record of decision in December 2017,” he said.
Lynn Schenk, a former state secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing and former member of Congress from San Diego, was less convinced. “I’d like you to be very skeptical,” she told Tripousis. “I’d like for you to look at this with a jaundiced eye toward (schedule) slippage, as the glass half empty rather than the glass half full.”
I want to make sure the schedule you’ve laid out gets met.
Dan Richard, California High-Speed Rail Authority Board chairman
Tripousis replied that his staff will exercise “rigorous oversight to keep on schedule and keep costs down.” Authority CEO Jeff Morales added that “the way we’ve put this proposal together, it takes into account our revised structure” with the statewide project consultant “for a more efficient and focused environmental process than before to ensure we meet the schedule and have ample public input.”
By contrast, the analysis of the authority’s Merced-Fresno section took more than three years from the start of the public scoping process in February 2009 to state approval of the 13,000-plus-page environmental impact report in May 2012. The process took even longer for the Fresno-Bakersfield section, starting in February 2009 and concluding with state and federal certification of a 20,000-page environmental report last summer. The Valley segments are planned as the backbone of a 520-mile line of high-speed electric trains connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2029. The first operational leg, from Merced to Burbank, is planned to begin carrying passengers in 2022.
Board chairman Dan Richard underscored the importance of the environmental approvals to the long-range schedule. “Environmental analysis is the long pole in the tent for developing the northern segment,” he said. “We can’t do anything until we have the environmental clearance done. We can’t access bonds, we can’t move forward with the project.”
While the environmental reports are proposed to move forward on a two-year approval schedule, the contract itself is for three years — time to allow for the consultant to support any follow-up work that may be needed once the reports are certified, Morales said.
Other consultants are currently doing environmental analyses for the rail authority’s Bakersfield-Palmdale, Palmdale-Burbank and Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim sections. Drafts of all three environmental impact reports are expected next year, with final approval anticipated in 2017.