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High-speed rail still on track

Planners look at two options for Central Valley route

POSTED January 22, 2010 11:40 p.m.
Local residents had their first opportunity to comment on California’s proposed High-Speed Rail system on Thursday, when project planners held an open house and scoping meeting at the Merced Senior Center.
The drop-in meeting was part of the earliest phase in the public planning process for the Merced to Sacramento portion of the $42 billion, 800-mile rail system that will stretch from San Francisco to San Diego. The 220 mile-per-hour trains will ferry passengers from Modesto to Los Angeles in just under two hours, at an approximately cost of $46.
“An enormous project is 20 miles,” said Carrie Bowen, Regional Director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “This project is hundreds of miles.”
Thursday’s meeting looked to identify concerns early in the environmental process, so as to draft the most comprehensive Draft Environmental Impact Report possible and avoid problems down the line. Planners sought input on alternatives and issues to examine in the report.
According to Bowen, the scoping meetings are also, in part, intended to gauge public opinion on the High-Speed Rail system and assuage fears that the massive project has gone off the rails. Construction remains on track to start in 2012, and the system will be rideable — though not fully built out — by 2017, Bowen said.
“That’s a very aggressive schedule, by the way,” Bowen said.
The exact path of the high-speed rails has yet to be determined, but planners are currently examining two different alignments through the Turlock area. The rails will likely be placed either adjacent to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, which runs through downtown Denair, or the Union Pacific Railroad, which runs through downtown Turlock along Golden State Boulevard.
At full build-out, eight trains an hour would travel each way along the lines through the valley. The trains are projected to be quieter than existing freight trains, despite the speed, as they will run on welded tracks and not produce the click-clack sound of traditional rail.
The high-speed tracks will also be grade-separated throughout the 800-mile run, and will require no street-level railroad crossings. The tracks will run either underground or pass above existing infrastructure. A possibility for new road overpasses above ground level tracks is also an option in some areas, planners said.
Nearby stations will be positioned in Merced and Sacramento, and an additional stop is likely for Modesto, either near the current Amtrak station or the old, downtown transportation center depending on which alignment is chosen. Riverbank and Lodi are also vying for a stop, but planners said that only one additional station is likely to be built between Merced and Sacramento.
The Altamont Commuter Express train will tie into the High-Speed Rail lines, with a new Altamont Corridor Rail project expected to link the proposed Stanislaus County station to San Jose. Each station is expected to tie into local transit options, and possibly have new housing built adjacent to the High-Speed Rail.
While the Merced to Sacramento section of the High-Speed Rail project is considered crucial — mainly because it will connect the train network to the state capitol — its construction will lag behind the segments deemed most important to the network, those connecting San Francisco to Anaheim.
The Valley’s Merced to Bakersfield segment will factor heavily into the initial plans, as the leg will be home to the test track and a heavy maintenance facility for the high-speed trains. Applications to house the heavy maintenance facility were due Jan. 15, with 15 applications received.
The Merced to Sacramento leg has been designated as a Phase 2 section of the project, which will not begin construction until the San Francisco to Anaheim line is complete.
“We’re a little behind as far as pecking order,” said Brent Ogden, Vice President for US Transportation Planning at AECOM.
Of course, construction hinges upon funding the $42 billion project.
While the majority of the tab is expected to be picked up by unidentified agencies in a public-private partnership, California voters approved $9.95 billion in state bonds for the project in 2008. The High-Speed Rail Authority has also requested $4.7 billion in federal stimulus funds out of the $8 billion available for such rail projects.
The Authority expects to hear within a month as to whether they will be awarded those funds. No stimulus funds would go toward the Merced to Sacramento segment.
The next open house to discuss the High-Speed Rail project will be held from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. Thursday at Modesto Center Plaza, 1000 L St., Modesto, CA.
Comments can also be sent to Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director, Merced-to-Sacramento, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L Street, Suite 1425, Sacramento, CA 95814, or e-mailed to comments@hsr.ca.gov with the subject line, “Merced to Sacramento HST.” Comments will be accepted until Feb. 26.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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