Public give views on high-speed rail

Critics far outnumber supporters at Fresno meeting

tsheehan@fresnobee.comApril 4, 2013 

— More than 200 people crammed their way into Fresno City Hall on Thursday, making the most of their chance to tell the California High-Speed Rail Authority how they feel about plans for a statewide high-speed train system and proposed routes through the San Joaquin Valley.

Board members heard from planners about four options being considered for a Y-shaped junction in the Chowchilla area, where high-speed rails from the Bay Area would merge with the main north-south line through the valley. Another report included a preliminary recommendation for a route between Fresno and Bakersfield with bypasses around the communities of Hanford, Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter before entering Bakersfield from the west.

Comments from the public took up almost three hours of the five-hour meeting Thursday. Critics of the $68 billion statewide rail project far outnumbered supporters. Some, like Charlene Hook of Corcoran, carried signs decrying route options that would slice through their homes.

Hook and her sisters live on property that sits in the path of a recommended bypass route east of Corcoran. Hook, whose sign read "There goes our homes," worries about losing her house, especially if money runs out without completing the system.

"There's speculation and lots of assumptions that high-speed rail will get any funding at all" from the federal government, Hook said. "Once you tear everyone out of their homes and destroy farmland, and discover there is no more money, then what?"

Another Corcoran resident, Karen Allen, said the billions of dollars to be used to begin building high-speed rail in the valley this year would be better spent to improve roads and bridges throughout the state.

Mark McLoughlin, the authority's deputy director of environmental planning, said the bypass routes west of Hanford, east of Corcoran, west of Allensworth and east of Wasco and Shafter have the fewest effects on homes, farms, businesses and the environment compared to an original route that more closely followed the BNSF Railway freight lines through the communities.

But Paul Smart, another Corcoran resident, asked the rail board "to do what's right for my community" and consider a different option -- an elevated track above the city.

"Our city will be forced to have a train run through it, and I believe the authority should give us, at a minimum, the least impacted alignment," he said. "We will never have an opportunity to profit from high-speed rail" with a station, "but you have the ability to do this without taking people's homes."

Farmers farther south, in the Wasco and Shafter area, opposed a bypass through farmland in favor of a route that follows the BNSF freight tracks through the towns.

"You asked us to build consensus in our community on where this alignment should go," said Keith Gardener, a member of the Wasco-Shafter Ag Group. "Everyone is in consensus that this should go on the BNSF corridor, not bifurcating hundreds or thousands of acres of prime farmland. We have consensus on where nine miles of track should go, and that's on BNSF."

In Madera County, the Y-junction near Chowchilla would occupy about 12 square miles. County leaders said that makes it a logical site for a heavy maintenance facility to service the trains.

"Madera County bears the burden of the only Y in the system," county Supervisor Manuel Nevarez said. "There's no benefit to us if we don't get something of this magnitude."

The authority board made no decisions on the route alternatives. The Chowchilla options will be studied in detail in an environmental report to be issued this fall and a final choice expected by early 2014. On the Fresno-Bakersfield option, the engineers' recommendations still need to be submitted to federal regulators before a final decision is expected this year.

The board approved contract extensions with two consulting teams working in the valley, increasing the budget for environmental and engineering work by a combined total of about $47 million over the next two years.

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