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Monday, May 05 2014 04:21 PM

High-speed rail agency poised to approve Fresno-Bakersfield section

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    By California High Speed Rail Authority

    An artist's conception of the bullet train speeding under the Tehachapi Pass.

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BY TIM SHEEHAN The Fresno Bee

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board is poised to forge ahead with approval of its Fresno-Bakersfield bullet-train route when it meets Tuesday and Wednesday in Fresno.

A 20,000-page report detailing the potential effects of construction and operation of the 114-mile segment will be up for public comment for at least four hours Tuesday afternoon and evening at Fresno City Hall. The next day, the board will consider certifying the report and adopting its preferred route from downtown Fresno, around the east edge of Hanford and to the northern edge of Bakersfield.

Related Info

IF YOU GO

What: California High-Speed Rail Authority board meeting

When: 3 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Fresno City Hall, City Council Chamber, 2600 Fresno St.

Why: The board will receive public comment on the final Environmental Impact Report for its proposed Fresno-Bakersfield rail section on Tuesday until at least 7:30 p.m. On Wednesday, the board will consider certifying the EIR, approving the route selection, and other business.

Details: The meeting is open to the public. The meeting agenda is available online at www.hsr.ca.gov/Board/monthly_brdmtg.html and clicking the "May" tab. The Fresno-Bakersfield EIR is online at www.hsr.ca.gov/Programs/Environmental_Planning/final_fresno_bakersfield.html.

The report, along with thousands of pages of technical appendices, details how the rail line could affect homes, businesses, farms, streams and wildlife habitat along the route. It also describes what the authority plans to do to make up for any environmental harm from the train system in the region.

For example, critics have repeatedly objected to the rail line's potential effects on San Joaquin Valley farmland, particularly in Kings County where bypasses around Hanford require the tracks to make wide, sweeping curves through farm parcels east of the city.

The environmental report estimates that out of more than 3.7 million acres of farmland that is considered prime, unique or of statewide or local importance in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, the rail line would permanently remove 3,500 to 3,600 acres from production. That includes about 435 acres on 271 small, isolated parcels that would be impractical to farm after being cut off by the railroad right of way.

In addition to proposing to arrange for the sale of larger bisected parcels to nearby farmers to keep the land in production, the rail authority says it has agreed with the state's Farmland Conservancy Program to purchase permanent preservation easements to protect at least as much farmland in the four-county region as would be affected by the rail line.

Fresno's two-day meeting comes despite strident pleas from politicians who oppose the rail project, including state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, and Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, to postpone the vote.

In a letter Friday, Vidak asked the authority's board chairman, Dan Richard, to put the vote off until June and then hold the meeting in either Kings or Kern counties. "While more of the public officials in Fresno may be supportive of high-speed rail than in Kings or Kern County, the Board should not just play to the 'home crowd' by avoiding communities that may not have officials so beholden to high-speed rail," Vidak wrote.

Earlier last week, Patterson was joined by Vidak in seeking a delay beyond June 30 to allow more time for the public to review and prepare comments on the final document.

Two earlier draft versions of the EIR were issued for public hearings and comment -- one in August 2011, the second in July 2012. The final version of the EIR up for approval this week includes revisions based on those two rounds of comments, as well as responses to those comments.

In a staff report to the board, the rail agency's environmental services director Mark McLoughlin and Central Valley Regional director Diana Gomez note that while the final EIR was published on April 18, it "was not issued for another round of public review and comment" because that is not required under the California Environmental Quality Act, the state's environmental protection law. "Although not required by CEQA, the Authority will provide a public comment opportunity" during Tuesday's board meeting, the staffers wrote.

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