Merced residents get a view of high-speed rail line options

As the state's multibillion- dollar high-speed rail project steams ahead, the rail line's impacts on the Valley remain to be seen.

Several major decisions on the project remain and will not be decided until the environmental studies are complete in 2011. Those decisions include the route through Merced, its impact on agriculture land and whether or not a maintenance yard, and its jobs, will end up here.

On Thursday night local residents and farmers voiced their concerns and enthusiasm for the project at an information session in the Merced Senior Center.

The gathering was one of two in the area where California High Speed-Rail Authority staff set up poster boards and maps explaining the project. It was also a forum for residents to put down on the record their concerns for the project.

"I think it would be great," said Bill Dunham, a computer programmer at Merced College, about the project.

Merced City Councilman Josh Pedrozo agreed. "I'm just excited we're going to get the rail," he said.

While excitement about the project was palpable, there were many on Thursday who were guardedly skeptical about the project.

Most of that concern came from local growers.

Jeff Marchini, who farms in southeast Merced County, said he and most of the agricultural community favor the route that follows the existing transportation corridor and does the least damage to prime ag land.

That route has also been backed by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Aside from impacts on farmland, there was concern about how the project could make Merced a bedroom community adding badly planned sprawl.

Jean Okuye of the Valley Land Alliance said she feared the project will spur rampant growth. The project's planners say the Los Banos station was expressly taken out of the plan because of such fears.

While not exactly a concern on the same par with others, many in Merced are hoping the project's heavy maintenance yard will be located here.

County Supervisor John Pedrozo said he thinks Merced is very much in the running for the maintenance yard.

The location of a yard will be somewhere between Merced and Fresno, said Carrie Bowen, the authority's regional director, but the exact location will not be decided until the project's environmental studies are complete in 2011.

The project has three possible routes between Merced and Fresno. One, A4, would run east of Highway 99, explained Bowen. That route has several pluses and minuses, she said. A major plus is that it could run along the BNSF Railway corridor already in place.

But that route ads four minutes of travel time and runs through ag land. It also presents some problems since the BNSF lines have curves that are too sharp for a train traveling at more than 220 mph, as the high-speed train is meant to travel.

The second alternative, A3, would run west of Highway 99. Like the route east of the highway, it would run through prime ag land. But it would increase the train's speed. "We are certainly hearing from the farming communities now," said Bowen. "They are very opposed to this."

The third alternative, A2, would run straight down the Highway 99 corridor. This route would least impact ag land, but Chowchilla and Madera oppose the route since it would cut right through their centers. "They are opposed to A2; they feel it will destroy their cities," she said.

The 800-mile system is estimated to cost $45 billion. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.