Bullet-train work continues in Fresno, Valley amid state-federal legal battle

California’s high-speed rail agency remains determined to complete about 119 miles of bullet-train construction in the central San Joaquin Valley, even as a confrontation with the Trump administration over promised federal funds escalates into a lawsuit.

“We are looking for a ramp-up in activity for construction,” said Tom Richards, vice chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, adding that he expects the pace of work to accelerate this summer. Richards, a Fresno businessman, said Tuesday at the agency board’s meeting in Sacramento that the state remains mindful of “the requirement to abide by all of the commitments we have” under a pair of federal grant agreements dating to 2010 and 2011 for about $3.5 billion to support engineering and construction in the Valley.

Tuesday’s board meeting came on the heels of California filing suit challenging the Federal Railroad Administration’s termination of the grant agreements.

Not only is the FRA canceling one unspent grant of $929 million in intercity rail funds and threatening to take back another $2.5 billion in stimulus money that’s already been spent, it has also disengaged from cooperating with the state on environmental analysis of sections of the statewide rail route outside of the Central Valley.

Construction has been underway for several years on overpasses, bridges, trenches and other structures for about 119 miles of the rail route in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Tulare and Kern counties. Those sections aren’t affected by the FRA’s disengagement because the state and federal agencies already certified the environmental evaluation of the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections in 2012 and 2014.

Crucially for Gov. Newsom’s plan to finish an operational project from Merced to Bakersfield, however, those earlier approvals omitted a section around the Madera County town of Chowchilla to allow for more environmental study of route options for a connector to Gilroy and San Jose. A supplemental environmental analysis for that Chowchilla junction – dubbed the Central Valley Wye – was issued this month.

On Tuesday, Richards was quick to note that the authority’s board has not yet signed on to Newsom’s plan. The board’s finance and audit committee, which Richards leads, has asked accounting firm KPMG to evaluate the business viability of operating a Merced-Bakersfield line as a stand-alone, interim high-speed train service until future connections can be built to the Bay Area and Los Angeles basin.

But progress toward those future connections could be jeopardized by the FRA, said Roy Hill, the state rail agency’s chief program officer. “There is a day-by-day delay,” Hill said. “At some point in time, there will be the fact that we will be unable to deliver our (stimulus grant) deliverables” because of the FRA’s inaction on environmental analyses. Hill added that if the FRA remains on the sidelines through mid-2021, it would affect the state’s ability to meet a December 2022 deadline to complete construction in the Valley, including electrification, control systems and other necessary components, to be ready to operate high-speed trains.

The rail authority board adopted an updated budget of $12.4 billion for completing work in the Valley, a 17 percent increase over what was forecast in 2018. Hill said the increase includes a “more prudent contingency of $1.52 billion” that represents a more realistic allowance to manage unexpected risks.

The budget also has about $2.2 billion for work on “bookend” systems in the Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin and completing environmental work for the rest of the San Francisco-Los Angeles rail route, even without federal cooperation.

The board’s 5-0 vote Tuesday also included a request by director Ernest Camacho, representing Southern California, for a more thorough analysis of how potential interim operations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles as well as the Central Valley could relieve greenhouse gases and traffic congestion.

“The bookends are the most congested areas in our entire state,” Camacho said. “This presents a tremendous opportunity for relief. If in fact we’re going to be looking at funding any segment, we should look at all of the elements we describe here.”

“I wasn’t great in geography,” Camacho added, “but California doesn’t end in Bakersfield. It ends in San Diego. We should look at all areas that have opportunities for high-speed rail.”

Among the conditions set out by the FRA in 2010 for the federal rail and stimulus grants was that the money be used to advance construction in the San Joaquin Valley. But Camacho’s remarks may foreshadow potential wrangling for where the state spends other money it has: either from Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond approved by California voters in 2008, or from the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.