State leaders will consider giving the go-ahead for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to begin negotiating for property in Fresno and Madera counties needed for high-speed train tracks.
At its meeting today in Sacramento, the state's Public Works Board is expected to approve the formal selection of 356 separate parcels by the rail authority. The Public Works Board, which includes the directors of the state's Finance, General Services and Transportation departments, is in charge of buying land for highway and other transportation projects in the state.
Also this week, five contracting teams are expected to submit their bids to design and build the first stretches of the proposed statewide rail system.
The Public Works Board's executive director, Greg Rogers, said selecting the parcels will let the rail authority begin making offers to owners whose property is targeted for the first stage of construction. Those parcels are either in the path of the tracks themselves or will be affected by related construction, including overpasses to carry city streets and county roads over the tracks or the relocation of Highway 99 between Ashlan and Clinton avenues.
The rail authority hopes to begin construction later this year on a 23-mile stretch from Avenue 17 east of Madera to downtown Fresno, even though it's facing lawsuits from property owners and others who are either unhappy with the route, dissatisfied with the agency's assessment of the project's environmental effects, or simply opposed to building the rail system.
First, however, the agency needs the Public Works Board's approval to proceed.
"It's an important step forward in the process as we move toward construction," said Jeffrey Morales, the authority's chief executive officer. "We cannot actually start the process of getting down to real discussions with property owners about how their situations will be handled" without today's anticipated action.
Detailed land plans
According to a detailed 152-page plan distributed to would-be contractors earlier this month, the agency would buy about 100 parcels on the list in their entirety -- mostly smaller lots where the amount of acreage left over from the railroad right of way, road relocations or other construction needs would be practically useless. On the rest of the properties, the authority would only buy portions needed for the route.
"What that plan shows is what is needed for the project," Morales said. "There is some leeway" over how much of a parcel the agency would buy, or how to deal with larger parcels that would be bisected by the rail line, he said.
"But until the Public Works Board approves the parcels, we can't actually get down to that level of discussion with property owners," Morales said.
The right-of-way plan indicates that the purchases will likely be spread out over the next two years, depending on the priority that contractors have put on each parcel for their construction needs. Nearly 130 parcels are proposed to be acquired by the end of this year, including 75 that will be needed by the end of September.
Meanwhile, Friday is the deadline for contractors competing to build the Madera-Fresno section to submit bids to the rail authority. But the winning company or team will probably not be known for weeks while the agency combs through the bid packages.
"This is not something like a typical Caltrans project, where you open the bid and you know the price and you know who wins," Morales said. For this project, contractors are bidding not only to build the rail line, but also to finish the design and engineering work.