California High-Speed Rail Authority approves hybrid route from Merced to Fresno

The California High-Speed Authority approved a hybrid route for the Merced-to-Fresno route during their meeting Tuesday in Merced.

But the decision came amid a chorus of voices— pro and con, urban and rural— from about 100 people who crowded the Sam Pipes room and spilled over into the lobby and elsewhere in City Hall.

The route, a blend of the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF tracks, would bypass the towns of Le Grand and Planada.

Merced would also get its downtown station between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and G Street, which authority officials said would “revitalize” the downtown area. Fresno would have its downtown station on Mariposa Street.

The recommendation will be included in the final environmental impact report, which would be published in February next year, according to authority officials.

The hybrid route would have less impact on natural resources than the BNSF alternative and fewer impacts on noise, dust and air quality and more, according to high-speed rail documents.

It would cost an estimated $3.8 to $4.8 billion, according to Rachel Wall, authority spokeswoman. The entire project costs $65 billion, but $98 billion when adjusted for inflation, she said.

The project is furthest along in environmental work in the statewide system between Merced and Fresno, according to Dan Leavitt, deputy director for Planning. And it’s also where construction will be initiated for the statewide high-speed rail system.

In a packed city council chambers, about 100 people came forward to discuss the hybrid route, job creation, the cost of mitigation and the agricultural impact.

Comments from neighboring cities, citizens, students and Merced city officials favored the hybrid route for the north-south alignment between Merced and Fresno, citing the number of jobs that would be available to California workers, and the ease of travel between the Valley and the rest of the state. But others representing Chowchilla and Madera voiced their unhappiness, accusing the authority of running over their town and ruining prime ag land.

Take Steve Massaro, president of Preserve our Heritage, a local group in Merced, who said the environmental documents used to determine the high-speed rail alignment didn’t consider all the impacts that were unique to this portion of the state. Moreover, they didn’t study the east-west alignments, he said.

“I’d be more worried about destroying the lands that have given you the most safest, most diverse food supply in the world,” he said during public comments. An added concern was the “destructive influence” the project would bring to the nation’s greatest resources, the San Joaquin Valley. He said he didn't think high-speed rail had any place in the Central Valley.

“Slow down and do a supplemental environmental impact report,” he said.

Other supporters of the hybrid, such as Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, said the decision for rail would be “historic for this country and for this state.”

Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo said the hybrid route didn’t cut through the communities of Le Grand and Planada, which fall in his district.

“It minimizes the impact to precious ag land,” he said. “I want to make sure the voice of ag continues to be heard and encouraged specifically in the west-east alignment.”

He also asked the board to educate the ag community on how high-speed rail could coexist with the agricultural community.Lee Boese, co-chairman of the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee, said he was thrilled they were one step closer to building a station in downtown Merced.

“It will enhance the lives,” of people, he said. He supports the hybrid route because it avoided Planada and Le Grand and, in his opinion, had less impacts on ag.

The project would put union and non-union workers to work, according to Jack Munoz, business manager and secretary-treasurer of Laborers' International Union of North America. More than 20 workers from the union of construction workers were standing outside city hall with banners. “It would put a lot of people to work,” Munoz said.

UC Merced students dressed up like a high-speed train and walked around outside City Hall Tuesday, chanting, “We want jobs, we want rail!” Ryan Heller, a UC Merced senior, founded “I Will Ride,” a new student organization that backs high-speed rail.

Heller said he would still be in California when the rail would be built. “We’re the ones advocating build it, pay for it, ride it,” he said.

The San Joaquin Valley tends to get overlooked, according to former Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs. “Dollars will be spent on public transportation in California one way or another. This population is going to double in the next 40 years. It's about the future, not about today,” he said.

The board members also extended the public comment period for the 2012 draft business plan till Jan. 16. They didn’t consider a location for the heavy maintenance facility, which will be dealt with later.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.