Ex-Fresno leader joins rail board, will vote on Val­ley-Bay Area route

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY TIM SHEE­HAN tshee­[email protected]­nobee.com Tim Shee­han: 559-441-6319, @TimShee­hanNews

A 13-mile tun­nel through Pacheco Pass and shared tracks with an ex­ist­ing com­muter rail sys­tem are key fea­tures of a “pre­ferred al­ter­na­tive” for a bul­let-train route con­nect­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley and the San Joaquin Val­ley that will be con­sid­ered Tues­day by the Cal­i­for­nia High-Speed Rail Au­thor­ity’s board of di­rec­tors.

It rep­re­sents one of the first op­por­tu­ni­ties for former Fresno County Su­per­vi­sor Henry R. Perea to weigh on in a de­ci­sion as a newly-minted mem­ber of the rail agency’s board.

Perea, a long­time sup­porter of the high-speed rail pro­ject, was ap­pointed to the board in Au­gust by state Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Toni Atkins and the Sen­ate Rules Com­mit­tee. Tues­day’s board meet­ing in San Jose will be Perea’s first since his ap­point­ment.

Perea will join an­other Fres­nan, de­vel­oper Tom Richards, on the rail au­thor­ity board. Richards, the sec­ond-long­est tenured mem­ber of the board, was ap­pointed in late 2010 by then-Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, and is cur­rently the board’s vice chair­man.

“The Central Val­ley is ground zero for high­speed rail, with all of the con­struc­tion going on in this re­gion, so it makes sense that there is more over­sight and more de­ci­sion-mak­ing per­spec­tive from the Val­ley,” Perea said. “I see it as val­ueadded” for the au­thor­ity to have two Val­ley rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the board.

Perea added that af­ter al­most a decade of high­speed rail ad­vo­cacy from the side­lines, he’s ea­ger to “jump in at a crit­i­cal junc­ture.”

“We’re moving now with Gov. New­som giv­ing di­rec­tion to build some­thing that’s op­er­a­tional (be­tween Bak­ers­field and Merced) sooner rather than later,” Perea said.

Un­der the vi­sion ex­pressed by New­som at his State of the State ad­dress in Fe­bru­ary, the rail agency is pur­su­ing scaled-down plans that em­pha­size com­plet­ing the con­struc­tion that is now un­der­way be­tween Bak­ers­field and Madera.

The rail route would then ex­tend to Merced, where bul­let-train pas­sen­gers can trans­fer to con­ven­tional Am­trak or Al­ta­mont Cor­ri­dor Ex­press trains to con­tinue north to Sacra­mento or west to San Jose and the Bay Area.

New­som’s plans put a high-speed line over Pacheco Pass from the Val­ley to Gil­roy and San Jose on the back burner un­til the state has money to un­der­take the ex­pen­sive task of bur­row­ing through the Di­ablo Range – and the San An­dreas Fault – past the San Luis Reser­voir.

The state, how­ever, is con­tin­u­ing with en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies for all of the re­main­ing route seg­ments be­tween San Fran­cisco and Los An­ge­les/Ana­heim to pre­pare for fu­ture work should money be­come avail­able.

The pro­posed rail line from San Jose through Gil­roy to west of Chowchilla is one of four al­ter­na­tives that will even­tu­ally be stud­ied in de­tailed en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact re­ports be­fore a fi­nal de­ci­sion is made. All four op­tions gen­er­ally fol­low the same broad cor­ri­dor be­tween San Jose and Gil­roy be­fore swing­ing east­ward through the Di­ablo Range and north of San Luis Reser­voir be­fore drop­ping into the San Joaquin Val­ley roughly along the High­way 152 cor­ri­dor.

But the rail au­thor­ity’s staff has rec­om­mended Al­ter­na­tive 4 as the pre­ferred op­tion that will re­ceive the great­est scru­tiny in the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view.

It stands apart from the other al­ter­na­tives be­cause it is the only one that im­ple­ments a “blended sys­tem” on which high­speed elec­tric trains would op­er­ate on the same tracks as Cal­train, the com­muter rail sys­tem serv­ing cities on the San Fran­cisco Penin­sula. Each of the other three op­tions al­lowed for a ded­i­cated align­ment of high-speed rail tracks.

The rail au­thor­ity’s pref­er­ence for a blended or shared sys­tem emerged in 2012, af­ter ear­lier plans for viaducts – or el­e­vated tracks – and ded­i­cated right-of-way along the Penin­sula were es­ti­mated to cost tens of bil­lions of dol­lars more than orig­i­nally an­tic­i­pated.

El­e­vated tracks also at­tracted plenty of ob­jec­tions from com­mu­ni­ties along the route.

The state’s anal­y­sis in­di­cates that Al­ter­na­tive 4 would dis­place fewer homes, busi­nesses, com­mu­nity or pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties and agri­cul­tural acreage than the other three op­tions; have less im­pact on wa­ter­ways or wet­lands and habi­tats for en­dan­gered or threat­ened wildlife and plants; and the least ef­fects on ex­ist­ing park­land re­sources.

If the board ap­proves Al­ter­na­tive 4, it would be iden­ti­fied as the pre­ferred op­tion in sub­se­quent en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies. It will likely be months be­fore a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact re­port would be pre­pared and re­leased for pub­lic comment; cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of a fi­nal ver­sion of the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­port and for­mal ap­proval of the route are un­likely un­til late 2020 or early 2021.

Also up for the board’s con­sid­er­a­tion Tues­day are op­tions for a route be­tween San Fran­cisco and San Jose, plus call­ing for high-speed trains to share elec­tri­fied tracks with the Cal­train sys­tem. The rail au­thor­ity has spent about $113.7 mil­lion to date with Cal­train to help pay for im­prove­ments to the line along the penin­sula, ac­cord­ing to the agency’s fi­nan­cial re­ports.

Henry R. Perea

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