The California High-Speed Rail Authority ("Authority") voted unanimously yesterday to approve allocating $4.33 billion for the construction of the first segment of the High-Speed Rail Project ("HSR"). The winning segment is actually a hybrid of the two competing corridors previously reported as being up for consideration: the Merced to Fresno, and Fresno to Bakersfield corridors. Until very recently, the general consensus was the Authority would choose the Fresno to Bakersfield corridor, given its inclusion of two of the largest population centers in the Central Valley and its relative connectivity to Northern and Southern California. To the surprise of many, however, the Authority rejected both of the corridors competing in the Central Valley. Instead, the first segment of Phase I will begin just south of Madera, in the town of Borden, and end in Corcoran—thus combining parts of what was thought to be separate and independent corridors.
The Authority explained that it was compelled to adjust its selection approach due to several operating constraints. First, the Federal Railroad Administration ("FRA") has mandated that the Authority enter into a grant contract with the FRA by December 31, 2010. Second, the federal funding requires the first segment to begin construction by 2012, and the expected completion dates of the different environmental review documents for each segment played a factor into the deadline. As a condition of federal funding, the environmental documents must be completed by fall of 2011. General Hans Van Winkle (ret.), project manager for the HSR, also explained that starting or ending the chosen segment in a city center (whether Merced, Fresno, or Bakersfield) was simply infeasible given the need to achieve "independent operability," and provide for ready linkage with existing BNSF track. The General made clear that based on federally mandated time constraints, the necessary expansion of the HSR, and the potential delays with the environmental review documents for the corridors north of Merced and south of Bakersfield, a decision to start in the former or end in the latter was also infeasible. Finally, the General stated that the $4.33 billion was an insufficient amount of money to construct the entire line of either of the previously considered Central Valley corridors.
The Authority's decision means the Borden to Corcoran segment, which straddles Fresno, will be the recipient of the $4.33 billion slated for the HSR from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The segment will include 65 miles of track and two new stations, one in downtown Fresno and the other east of Hanford, and will generally follow the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad west of Highway 99. A map of the selected segment can be seen here. The chosen segment will not constitute a fully operable rail line but will rather be a "starter construction project," meaning that no actual high-speed trains will use the segment until a larger percentage of the overall project is completed.
The Authority used the selection criteria it adopted at its November 4, 2010 meeting. Those criteria can be viewed here. In making its final determination, the Authority considered four segments and assigned scores corresponding to the extent each satisfied the necessary criteria:
- Alternative 1: Borden to Corcoran (65 miles and 2 stations)
- 110 points out of possible 130
- Alternative 2: South of Fresno to Bakersfield (90 miles and 1 station)
- 102 points out of possible 130
- Alternative 2A: Same alignment as Alternative 2 but includes an alternative of passing through the town of Corcoran
- 105 points out of possible 130
- Alternative 3: North of Merced (near Atwater) to Borden (44.5 miles and 1 station)
- 88 points out of possible 130
This selection segment must go through an environmental review process as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq.) and the California Environmental Quality Act (codified at Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq.). Many stakeholders in the impacted area are already participating in this process and others will have to get involved quickly, as the federal government further mandated that all environmental review documents for the chosen segment must be completed by September 2011. To comply with that directive, the Authority estimates it will publish the Draft Environmental Impact Report ("EIR") for the starter segment in January 2011. During that stage of environmental review, alternative alignments within the segment will be assessed, impacts will be evaluated, and possible mitigation measures will be studied. In addition, the Draft EIR will be circulated for public review and comment. The Authority estimates the Final EIR for the Borden to Corcoran segment will be completed in July 2011.
A staff Supplemental Alternatives Analysis of the route through Kings County shows that approximately five residential and three business properties will be directly impacted by construction of the selected route. However, 185 parcels or roughly 630 acres of agricultural land will also be directly affected. At yesterday's meeting, members of the agricultural community stressed their belief that the values assessment relating to impacts to agricultural land have been, and continue to be, highly undervalued by the Authority.
Once the environmental review process is completed, the Authority will then need to procure rights-of-way over impacted lands. That process will also occur on an expedited basis. The Authority has estimated that actual construction of the segment will begin in January 2012, a mere six months after finalization of the environmental review process. Thus, rights-of-way must be purchased during that time.
The Authority has published a guide, available here, that gives a general overview of its proposed eminent domain procedures.