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Stimulus sought for high-speed rail

POSTED September 23, 2009 12:04 a.m.
The State of California is working on the railroad — the proposed high-speed railroad that would stretch from San Francisco to Orange County — and they’re hoping the federal government might be willing to pitch in and help.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority Board will review an application today for approximately $4.5 billion of the $8 billion currently available in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. If approved, the measure will be forwarded to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk, and then onward to the Federal Railroad Administration in time for the Oct. 2 deadline.
“I think California is in a very good position to get the stimulus funding because we are further along the environmental process and already have done environmental studies along the 800-mile route,” said Carrie Bowan, Central California regional director for the High-Speed Rail Authority. “As well, the voters passed Prop 1A, so there’s $9 billion available … in matching funds.”
The grant money would be used to complete preliminary engineering and environmental work for the length of the high-speed route, and would finance final design and construction for three legs of the high-speed railway: San Francisco to San Jose; Los Angeles to Anaheim; and Merced to Bakersfield.
That last corridor, of most importance to Central Valley residents, has been split into two segments with Fresno in the middle for logistical reasons, mainly to ease environmental studies.
“If you added Bakersfield, that’s another 100 miles,” Bowan said. “If you’re trying to actually write reports on that, that’s a lot.”
The City of Turlock and Stanislaus County have both passed resolutions in support of the original Merced to Bakersfield alignment. The resolutions state that, by splitting the corridor, the Central Valley’s ability to receive federal funds could be jeopardized. They also lobby that the Central Valley segment is used as the test track for high-speed rail, as initially proposed, and that a station is constructed in downtown Merced while a heavy rail maintenance depot is built in Atwater’s Castle Commerce Center.
The recommendation calls for $932 million, in a 50/50 split of state and federal funds, to be spent on 50 miles of high-speed tracks from Merced to Fresno. The rail is currently projected to parallel the Union Pacific Railroad route and State Route 99, but the final route will be determined at the completion of environmental review.
An additional $1.6 billion in combined state and federal funds would be spent on 98 miles of track from Fresno to Bakersfield.
The stimulus funds and matching state bond money would pay for track to be constructed from Fresno to Bakersfield, but not electrification or other high-speed rail systems. Only the San Francisco to San Jose segment, at a cost of $2.5 billion, would be fully ready for high-speed rail.
Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield stations all remain part of the high-speed rail plans, but would not be funded by ARRA dollars. The mix of unidentified public and private funds expected to comprise the remaining $26 billion cost to complete the high-speed railway would finance their construction.
Should the entire project never be completed, the Federal Rail Administration requires that each rail segment provide utility independent of the high-speed railway. The staff report for the ARRA request indicates that the new rail would be interconnected with existing systems, providing safer, faster alternate routes for existing passenger rail services such as Amtrak, and would also improve traffic flow on Highway 99.
The federal stimulus funds are required to be committed by September 2011. All projects funded must be under construction by September of 2012 and completed by September 2017. Final operation for the entire 800 mile, $40 billion project is still projected for 2020.
“It does take a long time and a large part of that is the environmental regulations,” Bowan said, noting that the environmental review process has been fast-tracked — and not on high-speed rail.
The environmental process for the Merced to Sacramento section of the route is lagging about six months behind the routes included in the ARRA grant request. High-speed rail staff expects preliminary environmental and engineering studies to begin within the next month.
A scoping hearing on the Sacramento to Merced corridor of the high-speed railroad will be held in Turlock from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 29 at the Assyrian American Civic Center.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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