High-Speed Rail

High speed rail board considers farmland in Fresno County

More than 70 parcels of Fresno County farmland now under Williamson Act agricultural preservation contracts will be addressed Tuesday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The rail board, meeting in Palmdale, is expected to certify that the pieces of property -- which are along the approved right of way within the county of the state's proposed bullet-train line -- are necessary for the railroad route and were not selected just because of lower property values.

The Williamson Act is a state law under which a landowner agrees with the county to keep the property in agricultural use for 10 years. In exchange, the county appraises the land based on farm uses, rather than potentially higher-value commercial, industrial or residential development.

Additionally, the law states that "No public agency ... shall locate a public improvement within an agricultural preserve" without certifying that the site is not based on lower agricultural-preserve value and that there is "no other land ... on which it is reasonably feasible to locate the public improvement."

Because the high-speed rail authority proposes to acquire at least a portion of 71 parcels in Fresno County that are under Williamson Act contracts, the agency is required to notify the state Department of Conservation and make those certifications.

The Fresno County sites span from the south end of Fresno to the Fresno-Kings County line, and include parcels that are needed for the railroad right of way as well as for structures such as road overpasses. The properties total more than 6,000 acres, but the rail agency only needs to buy 478 acres; the rest of the farmland would remain under the farmers' or landlords' ownership.

The board took a similar action in August for 15 parcels of farmland in Madera County.

Southern stretches

The rail authority board will also learn about progress on proposed sections of the bullet-train route in Southern California, including a segment from Palmdale, in the Mojave Desert, to Burbank in the San Fernando Valley. Prior to this summer, the agency has focused its environmental analysis on route options that generally followed State Route 14 between Palmdale and Santa Clarita -- routes that riled residents of canyon communities Acton and Agua Dulce between the Sierra Pelona and San Gabriel mountain ranges.

But in the past few months, the agency floated another option -- a more direct route between Palmdale and Burbank that would run through the San Gabriel Mountains to a station at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

Rail authority CEO Jeff Morales said in August that the new option will be studied, along with the earlier alternatives, in environmental analyses before a preferred line is chosen.

The route through the San Gabriels, Morales said, "really wouldn't involve that much more tunneling" than the Highway 14 routes, and would have the advantage of not disrupting the towns of Agua Dulce and Acton. A more direct route, Morales said, would also slice minutes off the travel time.

"We have not run the numbers on this, but it is conceivable that we could begin revenue service on a Burbank-Palmdale section," he added, noting the rapidly growing population of Los Angeles commuters who drive or take Metro trains daily to and from Palmdale. Burbank-Palmdale represents a drive of about an hour by car, depending on traffic, or about 1 hour 40 minutes on the Metrolink commuter train line.

Morales said he would expect considerable commuter demand for a high-speed train service that could reduce the trip to about a half hour. Such service, he added, could begin generating income even before high-speed trains would operate on the already-approved rail route between Merced and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley, and spur progress on closing the rail gap between Bakersfield and Palmdale. Demolition of buildings has already begun in the Fresno area for that line, and construction is expected to commence this fall.

The rail authority has previously defined Merced to the San Fernando Valley as its proposed "initial operating segment." The cost of that segment has been estimated at $31 billion. The agency currently has about $6 billion available -- a combination of federal stimulus and transportation grants and money from Proposition 1A, the 2008 high-speed rail bond act -- to build its San Joaquin Valley sections from Madera to Bakersfield.

Work on the Southern California stretches would be accelerated by using cap-and-trade money paid into the state's greenhouse-gas reduction program by companies to buy credits to offset their own pollution.

You can watch

What:  California High-Speed Rail Authority board meeting

When: 9 a.m. Tuesday

Online: webcast live

Details: The meeting agenda is online