Those displaced by rail project can get answers

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comDecember 11, 2012 

— The California High-speed Rail Authority recently said it will be in Merced on Thursday to answer questions from business and property owners about the project.

The announcement follows a recent court decision that clears the way for officials to begin construction on the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project, despite several legal challenges.

The 4 to 7 p.m. meeting at the Merced College Business Resource Center will be the first time authority officials have reached out personally to local residents who could be displaced by the project, according to city officials.

The communication between the authority and the city has been "very poor," said Mayor Stan Thurston.

"Originally the meeting on the 13th was supposed to be for small business opportunity," he said. "Out of the blue they added on the property-and-land-acquisition issues. This kind of scenario just further decreases support for this project."

Authority officials played up the potential for local profits from the rail project.

"Our meeting in Merced is an opportunity to update the community on the project, including opportunities for small businesses and the creation of thousands of jobs," said authority CEO Jeff Morales.

At the same time, a number of residents are worried about losing their homes or businesses.

"I'm a little bit concerned about the timeline, how soon they plan to start acquiring property and what our choices are, as far as relocating or buying us out?" said Joseph Corvello, owner of C&S Motors and Towing, which will likely be displaced by the high-speed rail station planned for Merced.

The proposed station is slated for a site between Martin Luther King Jr. Way, G, 16th and 15th streets, potentially forcing dozens of businesses to relocate or close.

At the same time, tracks to be laid adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad Co. line will likely displace other properties within the city limits.

Corvello said he hopes to have a better idea of how to prepare after attending the meeting.

"My concern is where are they going to put all these businesses like mine?" he said. "Because this type of business isn't something you can just have anywhere, and we have a real good location right now."

Local officials say construction of the Merced station can't start until the city completes a design study, which is expected to be finished no sooner than fall of 2016.

The city is still waiting on $600,000 in state and federal funding to start the design phase to ensure the station meets the aesthetic and practical needs of the city.

The Merced College Business Resource Center is at 630 West 19th St. in Merced.

The authority expects to receive bids in January to build the first section of the rail line from east of Madera to the south side of Fresno.

The $68.4-billion high-speed rail project is expected to stretch over 520 miles, connecting the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin within a decade.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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