City dis­putes cut first phase of bul­let train

Shafter of­fi­cials hope to reroute sec­tion of track af­ter Bak­ers­field chal­lenge is suc­cess­ful.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Dan Weikel and Ralph Vartabe­dian

State bul­let train of­fi­cials have cut eight miles of track from an ini­tial 130-mile sec­tion of con­struc­tion in the Cen­tral Val­ley as a re­sult of legal dis­putes with lo­cal cities.

In­stead of end­ing in the out­skirts of Bak­ers­field, the rail work will now stop just north of Shafter. A still-pending legal battle also could elim­i­nate a pro­posed el­e­vated struc­ture that would have car­ried high­speed trains through Shafter’s down­town.

The Cal­i­for­nia High-Speed Rail Author­ity says the dis­tance cov­ered by the ini­tial con­struc­tion plan had to be re­duced be­cause of a De­cem­ber agree­ment that set­tled a law­suit brought by Bak­ers­field of­fi­cials. The set­tle­ment calls for a re­view of the pro­posed route through the city.

The change is the lat­est devel­op­ment stem­ming from legal dis­putes over the ef­fects of the mas­sive project on Cen­tral Val­ley coun­ties, cities and farms. Ad­di­tional meet­ings and stud­ies of the route could take months.

Lisa Marie Al­ley, a spokes­woman for the rail author­ity, said the law­suits and set­tle­ment rep­re­sent “an evo­lu­tion of the project,” not com­pli­ca­tions. The route re­con­sid­er­a­tion won’t cause an over­all de­lay in the project’s con­struc­tion, she said, and track elim­i­nated from the cur­rent con­struc­tion ef­fort can be han­dled in a later con­tract.

Like in Bak­ers­field, Shafter of­fi­cials filed a law­suit al­leg­ing that the author­ity’s en­vi­ron­men­tal anal­y­sis of the pro­posed route through their town was in­ad­e­quate. City Manager Scott Hurl­bert said the Shafter case con­trib­uted to the re­con­sid­er­a­tion of the Bak­ers­field align­ment be­cause more changes could be in the off­ing, in­clud­ing to a long sec­tion of viaduct.

Ac­cord­ing to the Bak­ers­field set­tle­ment, the city and the author­ity must meet with busi­ness own­ers, farm­ers and other stake­hold­ers to ex­plore a new route through the north­ern part of

the city be­fore it con­nects to a down­town high-speed rail sta­tion a few miles from the ex­ist­ing Am­trak sta­tion.

The author­ity and the city have un­til Jan­uary 2016 to reach an agree­ment on an align­ment, un­less both par­ties agree to an ex­ten­sion of the dead­line.

“The author­ity is com­mit­ted to look at a new con­cep­tual align­ment,” Al­ley said. “We are work­ing with the City Coun­cil, the city and the public.”

The change in con­struc­tion plans emerged pub­licly last month, when the author­ity board asked con­struc­tion com­pa­nies bid­ding on a 30-mile track-lay­ing con­tract to ad­just their pro­pos­als to 22 miles.

Be­cause of the re­duc­tion in work, the es­ti­mated cost of $700 mil­lion to $900 mil­lion was low­ered to be­tween $400 mil­lion and $500 mil­lion.

The Shafter-to-Bak­ers­field sec­tion is a small part of the project’s ini­tial $6-bil­lion con­struc­tion phase, which in­cludes bridges, viaducts, trenches and the in­stal­la­tion of rail, and is ex­pected to be com­pleted by 2017. The elec­tri­cal sys­tem to op­er­ate trains would be part of a later project to ex­tend tracks to Merced and Bur­bank.

El­iz­a­beth Gold­stein Alexis, co-founder of a San Fran­cisco Bay Area group that op­poses the project, said the con­tract change rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant mod­i­fi­ca­tion to the state’s plan, but was only vaguely de­scribed at a rail author­ity board meet­ing. “There were no maps or dis­cus­sion of the change,” she said. “They didn’t even name the town where they were stop­ping.”

Alexis said she be­lieves the cut­back was driven in part by bud­get pres­sures at the author­ity — some­thing high-speed rail of­fi­cials deny. State rail of­fi­cials say bids on con­struc­tion con­tracts for the Cen­tral Val­ley seg­ment have come in un­der author­ity cost es­ti­mates.

How the state will fully fund the $6-bil­lion ini­tial con­struc­tion phase is not en­tirely cer­tain, how­ever.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has pro­vided grants of $3.2 bil­lion. The amount in­cludes about $2 bil­lion that must be matched with an equal amount of state money that has to be spent by Septem­ber 2017. Fed­eral funds left un­spent af­ter that date would be re­turned.

The state has to come up with $2.8 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to its of­fi­cial fund­ing plan, and has $9 bil­lion in bond fund­ing that vot­ers ap­proved in 2008 that could be tapped if cer­tain con­di­tions are met. But that state money is the fo­cus of an on­go­ing legal chal­lenge by project op­po­nents.

The rail project also has in­come from car­bon emis­sion fees. In the fis­cal year that starts in July, the ca­pand-trade pro­gram is ex­pected to raise an es­ti­mated $2 bil­lion, giv­ing the project about $500 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the Leg­isla­tive An­a­lyst’s Of­fice.

Leg­isla­tive an­a­lysts also pre­dict those rev­enues will re­main fairly level in com­ing years. That means cap-and­trade funds alone aren’t likely to pro­vide the $2.8 bil­lion in match­ing funds the rail author­ity needs by 2017.

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