High-Speed Rail

Proposed Valley rail route runs into friction

An artist's depiction of a high-speed rail train zooming past downtown Fresno.
An artist's depiction of a high-speed rail train zooming past downtown Fresno.

As Fresno leaders happily anticipate a vote today that could start construction of California's high-speed rail system in the central San Joaquin Valley, officials to the north fear they may be bypassed for years if a section from Madera to Corcoran is approved.

(High-speed rail board approves Valley route)

From city and county officials to Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, a hue and cry is developing over a potential "train to nowhere" unless the first section at least connects Merced to Fresno. And they plan to complain at today's meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority in Sacramento.

The proposed train system, which could eventually span 800 miles, is intended to carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles, by way of the San Joaquin Valley, at speeds of up to 220 mph. Because of strings attached to nearly $3 billion in federal stimulus funds, the state plans to begin construction somewhere in the Valley and build northward and southward from there as more money becomes available.

The authority's engineers and planners announced last week their recommendation, to be formally presented to the board today, to use about $4.3 billion in federal and state funds to start with a 54-mile stretch between Borden, an obscure spot on the map near Madera, through Fresno, to Corcoran in Kings County.

The recommendation came as a surprise to many because it splits the difference between two sections being considered as the state sought billions in federal funds: Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield.

"This isn't about the first mile or the first 50 miles. What matters is the entire system," Jeffrey Barker, the authority's deputy director, said when the hybrid route was announced.

"We need to get all the way from L.A. to San Francisco. This is just where we're going to start."

But in a written statement, Cardoza blasted the recommendation -- announced on the day before Thanksgiving -- as "a last-minute bait-and-switch" and "a Thanksgiving Day fraud."

Because construction is expected to create tens of thousands of jobs over the coming years, Fresno County -- sitting at the north end of one proposed option, the south end of another and smack in the middle of the recommended choice -- stands to win no matter what the board decides today.

"This ... is a very important day in the future of Fresno County," said Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea, who is co-chairman of local efforts to promote high-speed rail in the county. "It's time to put our people back to work and revolutionize transportation as we know it."

The first phase of a high-speed train system between San Francisco and Los Angeles is planned to run through the San Joaquin Valley and be operational by 2020. The plans have long contemplated stations in Merced and Fresno, with a connection from the Bay Area tying in somewhere between the two Valley cities.

Phase 2, which would begin at an undetermined future date, would extend the system from its backbone north to Sacramento and south to San Diego.

High-speed rail planners evaluated four alternatives -- Borden to Corcoran, Merced to Fresno, and two options between Fresno and Shafter, in Kern County -- before making their recommendation last week.

But maps of possible connections from the Valley to the Bay Area through the Pacheco Pass show the main routes veering westward well south of Merced. That's why officials in the north Valley fear there is no guarantee the first phase will reach Merced until it's time to build northward to Sacramento.

Cardoza, along with the mayors of Merced, Modesto, Turlock and Stockton and Merced County leaders, said a line between Merced and Fresno makes far more sense by connecting two cities with stations on the system.

Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo, in a written statement, said a line from Borden to Corcoran "lays track in the most remote areas of the Valley, connecting two minimal populations that will never attract ridership."

But even if the first set of tracks connects Fresno to Merced, ridership between the two Valley cities isn't a consideration for where to begin construction, the authority's staff reports. That's because there are no plans to run high-speed trains on any part of the system until tracks are extended from the Valley to at least the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

Merced County leaders hope the authority's board -- nine members appointed by the governor, the state Senate and the state Assembly -- will disregard the staff recommendation and select the Merced-to-Fresno option.

If board members did choose to buck their planners and engineers, it would be a surprise, but not unprecedented, say regular observers of the board's activities.

But a Dec. 31 deadline set by the federal government to confirm how its contribution of nearly $3 billion will be used gives them little time to reconsider, said Elizabeth Alexis, a Palo Alto resident who is a co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

"It's Thursday or never," she said. "I think the board is going to decide they want something rather than nothing."