BY TIM SHEEHAN The Fresno Bee
It may be a little late in the game, but a Madera County supervisor is floating a last-ditch alternative for a high-speed train route between Merced and Fresno.
Supervisor David Rogers, who represents the Chowchilla area, wants to convince the California High-Speed Rail Authority to use about 30 miles of partially abandoned freight railroad right of way between Merced and Mendota and to enter Fresno from the west along a short-line freight railroad. Doing so, he suggested Thursday, would enable the rail authority to almost entirely bypass Madera County -- which is suing to stop the high-speed train project -- and save the state a pile of money.
Rogers presented his idea at the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee meeting in Fresno. The committee advises the California Department of Transportation on its operation of Amtrak's San Joaquin passenger trains, but has no jurisdiction on the state's high-speed rail plans.
Rogers said he has no detailed analysis of potential savings, but said he believed the state could save huge sums by using an existing rail corridor and not having to fight with property owners to buy the needed right of way. Additionally, he said, it would eliminate the need to disrupt or relocate roads, utilities and other infrastructure through the city of Fresno along the rail authority's chosen route along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Highway 99.
Rogers, who opposes the high-speed rail project, said he would prefer an upgraded Amtrak San Joaquin service with trains running at 125 mph instead of a separate high-speed line with trains capable of 220 mph through the Valley. "But if they insist on building a brand-new system ... they have to look at the cost of doing it efficiently," he said.
"There are literally millions to billions to be saved," Rogers said.
But Diana Gomez, Central Valley project manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said Rogers' proposal comes at least two years too late for serious consideration because the state is only weeks away from choosing a contractor to build the first sections of the line from Madera through Fresno.
The authority finalized its choice of a Merced-Fresno route last May, selecting a "hybrid" route that follows the Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks near Highway 99 between Merced and Chowchilla, wanders east to follow the BNSF Railway tracks east of Madera, and then returns to the UP/Highway 99 corridor from the San Joaquin River to downtown Fresno.
Madera County, the Madera and Merced county farm bureau organizations and other groups are plaintiffs in a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court challenging the rail authority's environmental approval for the Merced-Fresno section. Two other lawsuits against the state, one by the city of Chowchilla, the other by corporate property owners in Madera and Fresno counties, have been settled in recent weeks.
Also on Thursday, a judge in Sacramento ruled against the Bay Area town of Atherton, which was suing the rail authority over its environmental review of potential routes along the San Francisco Peninsula.