Former Fresno leader joins high speed rail board, will vote on Valley-Bay Area route

A 13-mile tunnel through Pacheco Pass and shared tracks with an existing commuter rail system are key features of a “preferred alternative” for a bullet-train route connecting Silicon Valley and the San Joaquin Valley that will be considered Tuesday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s board of directors.

It represents one of the first opportunities for former Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea to weigh on in a decision as a newly-minted member of the rail agency’s board.

Perea, a longtime supporter of the high-speed rail project, was appointed to the board in August by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and the Senate Rules Committee. Tuesday’s board meeting in San Jose will be Perea’s first since his appointment.

Perea will join another Fresnan, developer Tom Richards, on the rail authority board. Richards, the second-longest tenured member of the board, was appointed in late 2010 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and is currently the board’s vice chairman.

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Henry R. Perea, a former Fresno County supervisor and Fresno City Council member, was appointed in August 2019 to the California High-Speed Rail Authority board of directors. Fresno Bee file photo

“The Central Valley is ground zero for high-speed rail, with all of the construction going on in this region, so it makes sense that there is more oversight and more decision-making perspective from the Valley,” Perea said. “I see it as value-added” for the authority to have two Valley representatives on the board.

Perea added that after almost a decade of high-speed rail advocacy from the sidelines, he’s eager to “jump in at a critical juncture.”

“We’re moving now with Gov. Newsom giving direction to build something that’s operational (between Bakersfield and Merced) sooner rather than later,” Perea said.

Under the vision expressed by Newsom at his State of the State address in February, the rail agency is pursuing scaled-down plans that emphasize completing the construction that is now underway between Bakersfield and Madera.

The rail route would then extend to Merced, where bullet-train passengers can transfer to conventional Amtrak or Altamont Corridor Express trains to continue north to Sacramento or west to San Jose and the Bay Area.

Newsom’s plans put a high-speed line over Pacheco Pass from the Valley to Gilroy and San Jose on the back burner until the state has money to undertake the expensive task of burrowing through the Diablo Range – and the San Andreas Fault – past the San Luis Reservoir.

The state, however, is continuing with environmental studies for all of the remaining route segments between San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim to prepare for future work should money become available.

The proposed rail line from San Jose through Gilroy to west of Chowchilla is one of four alternatives that will eventually be studied in detailed environmental impact reports before a final decision is made. All four options generally follow the same broad corridor between San Jose and Gilroy before swinging eastward through the Diablo Range and north of San Luis Reservoir before dropping into the San Joaquin Valley roughly along the Highway 152 corridor.

But the rail authority’s staff has recommended Alternative 4 as the preferred option that will receive the greatest scrutiny in the environmental review.

It stands apart from the other alternatives because it is the only one that implements a “blended system” on which high-speed electric trains would operate on the same tracks as Caltrain, the commuter rail system serving cities on the San Francisco Peninsula. Each of the other three options allowed for a dedicated alignment of high-speed rail tracks.

The rail authority’s preference for a blended or shared system emerged in 2012, after earlier plans for viaducts – or elevated tracks – and dedicated right-of-way along the Peninsula were estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars more than originally anticipated.

Elevated tracks also attracted plenty of objections from communities along the route.

The state’s analysis indicates that Alternative 4 would displace fewer homes, businesses, community or public facilities and agricultural acreage than the other three options; have less impact on waterways or wetlands and habitats for endangered or threatened wildlife and plants; and the least effects on existing parkland resources.

If the board approves Alternative 4, it would be identified as the preferred option in subsequent environmental studies. It will likely be months before a draft environmental impact report would be prepared and released for public comment; certification of a final version of the environmental report and formal approval of the route are unlikely until late 2020 or early 2021.

Also up for the board’s consideration Tuesday are options for a route between San Francisco and San Jose, plus calling for high-speed trains to share electrified tracks with the Caltrain system. The rail authority has spent about $113.7 million to date with Caltrain to help pay for improvements to the line along the peninsula, according to the agency’s financial reports.

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.