Our View: Rail project could be boon for the valley

August 19, 2013 

Much of the focus on California's high-speed rail project has been on reading the tea leaves of the far-distant future — from projecting costs to ridership demand.

But that misses an important part of the here and now: the potential for this project to benefit much of the San Joaquin Valley.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority signs a contract for "everything-but-track" work next week for the first stage — building rail bed, bridges and overpasses in the 29 miles from Madera to Fresno. Several hundred people, including engineers, will be moving to Fresno in advance of this construction.

Soon Californians will see surveying work and equipment moving in. This first section traverses 364 land parcels and the High-Speed Rail Authority has a schedule for acquiring parcels as they are needed. To date, the rail authority has 130 offers out, mostly west of Highway 99. The contractor expects to be working in four or five different locations at a time.

The southern end of the first 29 miles goes through a blighted area of downtown Fresno, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. This is the most technically challenging part of the first 29 miles. The contractor soon will be taking down abandoned or decaying buildings, cleaning up vacant lots, building overpasses and changing city streets.

Leaders in Fresno are counting on high-speed rail, including a new station in downtown Fresno close to the baseball stadium, to be a key part of turning around the fortunes of a city that has the fifth highest concentration of poverty in the nation. The immediate area surrounding the station is a prime location for businesses and housing, without adding to car-centric development.

The entire San Joaquin Valley is projected to grow at a rate greater than any other region in California. Fresno already is approaching Baltimore in population. A new rail passenger line between Fresno and Merced would help relieve congestion along state Route 99 and air pollution in the most polluted air basin in the United States. It also would provide connections to and from airports, rail and the highway network in the San Joaquin Valley.

Despite the efforts of dedicated opponents, including Republican members of the California congressional delegation, this project is moving forward.

A potential setback emerged Friday when a judge agreed with Kings County that the rail authority has to have financing and environmental clearances in hand for the first 290 miles — not just the first 130 miles. We think that ruling is ripe for appeal.

Some people seem to have forgotten what it takes to complete a project of this size. For example, the last big highway project in California — the 210, also known as Foothill Freeway, in the Los Angeles area — was planned in the 1940s, commissioned in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The last segment opened in 2007.

Jeff Morales, the chief executive officer of the high-speed rail authority, told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board Wednesday, "It has been decades since 30 miles of anything has been built in California. The last stretch of the 210 in Los Angeles was 12 miles." In addition to state funds, the rail authority is under the gun to spend $2.2 billion in federal money to complete the 130 miles from Madera to Bakersfield by October of 2017.

Morales says he "flatly disagrees" with the assessment by critics that the rail authority won't spend the $2.2 billion or complete the work by that deadline. Of the total, $773 million will be spent on acquiring 1,100 parcels. Then comes the preparation of the rail bed. Finally comes laying track, a separate contract.

The first stage — and the spate of lawsuits coming from opponents — will indicate whether California still has the stick-to-itiveness to plug away at multiyear, multistage projects.

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