High-speed rail authority to look at new alignment


Issue Date: October 12, 2011
By Christine Souza

Plans for the 800-mile proposed California high-speed rail system have changed for those who live and farm within the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section. The California High-Speed Rail Authority announced last week plans to reinstate an alternative route that bypasses Hanford to the west, affecting more agricultural properties.

The announcement came just days before the official deadline for public comments to be submitted on environmental documents released in August for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield and Merced-to-Fresno sections of the proposed rail system. The formal comment period closes Oct. 13 for both sections, but a revised document for the reinstated Fresno-to-Bakersfield alignment will be issued next spring and will have a separate, 45-day comment period, officials said.

Kings County Farm Bureau Program Director Diana Peck said the Hanford West Bypass alternative would affect additional owners of agricultural property.

"This means there's going to be a whole new crop of farmers and businesses affected by California high-speed rail," Peck said. "We asked the authority to follow the mandate and stick to existing transportation corridors. We asked them to bring back the Union Pacific Railroad and Highway 99 alignment through the center of California. This is still an agricultural lands alignment outside of the city, so we're not happy about this."

The rail authority said the Hanford West Bypass alternative, along with an alternative station location to serve the Kings/Tulare region, was selected in response to feedback from stakeholders, agencies and the public.

"Our job is to oversee and provide the best possible high-speed train project for California," said Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, who encouraged members of the public to "take advantage of this additional step in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield environmental process" by providing additional comments next year on the revised document.

As they now consider the revised route, property owners whose homes and farms are in the direct path of the high-speed rail system have been scrambling to prepare comments on more than 17,000 pages that make up the draft environmental reports for the Merced-to-Fresno and Fresno-to-Bakersfield sections.

California Farm Bureau Federation Managing Counsel Chris Scheuring said Farm Bureau found that for both sections, aligning the rail system with existing transportation corridors would be least disruptive to agriculture.

"Staying on the existing transportation corridors is a form of avoidance, which is required under state and federal environmental law and it is also consistent with the mandate from Proposition 1-A, which was approved by California voters in 2008," Scheuring said.

For the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section, Scheuring said, Farm Bureau believes that the rail authority should consider an eastern alignment alternative along Highway 99 that is not currently analyzed in the environmental documents.

Farm Bureau continues to review the uncertain east and west Hanford bypass alignments in Kings County, Scheuring said, noting that both alternatives fail to account for the concerns of local residents, while affecting large amounts of farmland outside of any existing right-of-way or major transportation corridor.

For the Merced-to-Fresno section, he said, an alignment along the Union Pacific Railroad and Highway 99 is most consistent with the intent of voters and the concerns of the local agricultural community.

"If the project intersects farmland, it is going to be disruptive and result in severed parcels and operations, severed irrigation systems and wells, among other impacts," Scheuring said.

Merced dairy farmer Matt Strickland is among those whose farm could be disrupted by the Merced-to-Fresno section of the rail project.

"The original route that they had went through the farm, but now it goes straight through our corrals and right past our milk barn and makes our facility useless," Strickland said. "We'd have to relocate the dairy, possibly out of state. To rebuild a dairy in the state of California is virtually impossible."

The high-speed rail project is expected to cost between $10 billion and $13.9 billion to build between Merced and Bakersfield, with the authority planning to begin construction as soon as 2012.

In another development, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, introduced a bill last Friday that would prevent the Obama administration from spending additional high-speed rail funds in California through September 2012. McCarthy's bill, H.R. 3143, also directs the Government Accountability Office to evaluate the project's feasibility.

For more information about the project, visit the authority website at www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.