High-speed rail authority narrows Merced-to-Fresno route choices

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has winnowed the possible route its bullet train may take from Merced to Fresno.

It cut the number of routes it will continue to study to two, according to a route analysis released Thursday.

Although the decision gives local governments an idea of where the train may run, it pits several Merced County governments — as well as farm interests in the area — against Madera County's two largest cities.

The report narrowed the possible routes through Merced and Madera counties that the authority will continue to study. Those two routes are A1, which would run to the east of Highway 99 south of Merced along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway; and A2, which would run south near Highway 99 along the Union Pacific line.

The Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee's co-chairman, Lee Boese, said he's happy that its preferred route (A2) was kept as an option, the other alternative wasn't to his liking. "We are not happy with A1," said Boese.

Environmentally sensitive

Route A1, argued Boese, would be devastating for farmers and would take much longer to build, since it goes through more ecologically sensitive areas.

The cities of Madera and Chowchilla were watching the authority's decisions closely, since one of the routes would bypass both cities.

Madera City Manager David Tooley said the City Council hasn't taken an official position on either route, but that A2 would hurt the city the most.

"A2 would have the greatest impact to the city of Madera," he said.

A1 would have the least impact on Madera and Chowchilla, since it would bypass both cities, he added.

Although the impact of A2 would be massive to both cities and raise mitigation costs, said Tooley, there are other elements to consider. If either city wants the heavy maintenance yard, the A2 route is almost a must, he said.

"Certainly, there's a balancing act for us," he added.

The analysis tentatively removed several alternative routes, including A3, known as the Western Madera route; and A4, a hybrid between Union Pacific track alignment and Burlington Northern Santa Fe track.

No station at Castle, Amtrak site

The analysis also set aside two station sites in Merced: Castle Commerce Center and the Merced Amtrak station. Besides those changes, the analysis left just two routes crossing the valley north of the San Luis Reservoir.

Paul Barker, deputy director of the authority, said that though it has decided to focus on two routes in the Merced area, none of the paths will be official until the environmental impact report is completed in 2011. "For the layman, we are kind of dropping those (other routes) and not studying them any further," he said.

Whatever sections are further along in their environmental work will most likely be where the authority decides to start building, he said. That's because the federal government gave the authority $2.5 billion, which it has promised to match, and construction must start by 2011 or the agency will lose that funding.

The High-Speed Rail Authority's state governing board was formed in 1996. In November 2008, voters passed a $9 billion bond, setting in motion the building of a 220-mile-long high-speed train line from San Francisco to Los Angeles.