On May 7, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) Board of Directors certified the Final Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield project section of the high-speed rail program, and approved a rail alignment within the Fresno-to-Bakersfield project section.
The action allows the Authority to take additional steps toward continuing major work on the project south from Fresno. This also approves the preferred alignment from the southern edge of the previously approved Fresno Mariposa Street station to the 7th Standard Road northwest of Bakersfield.
“This document represents a culmination of the work done by the Authority to identify a preferred alignment for the project that is consistent with the parameters of Proposition 1A requirements, and extensive input and feedback from members of the community, local and elected officials, a variety of stakeholders and our state and federal partners,” said Authority Board Chair Dan Richards. “I know that I have personally, along with my colleagues on the board and Authority staff, spoken with hundreds of people that live and work within this project section. As this process moves forward, we are all committed to and will continue to work with property owners and businesses to ensure that impacts from the high-speed rail project are mitigated and that the project benefits Central Valley residents now and into the future.”
Members of the Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability (CCHSRA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group whose members mainly reside in the City of Hanford and surrounding rural areas, strongly disagree with the decision.
“We are disappointed in the Authority’s decision to approve this plan before fully mitigating its impacts,” said CCHSRA Co-Chair Frank Oliveira. “The Authority made it clear in the meeting that they did not have to respond to our comments. Since that was the case, I am not sure what the point of the last public comment period was or the point of asking the public to comment at the meeting. Perhaps it shows that they want the public to think that they care or something – a public image thing.
“We find the document to only address the things that they want to work around, and it does not adequately address known environmental impacts that are on the ground in front of us – things that pose risk to everyone that are known and should be addressed,” he added.
On May 6, the Authority’s board of directors heard a staff presentation and took public comments on the Fresno to Bakersfield Final EIR/EIS. The following day, they considered whether to certify the document under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and approved the project and adopted the document required under CEQA. The board then voted unanimously to certify the Fresno-to-Bakersfield Section Final EIR/EIS, and unanimously approved a high-speed rail alignment within the Fresno-to-Bakersfield project section.
“What they did was approve their own plan that they declared met the minimum standards of CEQA,” said Oliveira. “They also get to declare what the minimum standard of CEQA means as it relates to their plan. We expected that they would do what they did.”
“This agreement is an extremely important investment in our future that will benefit Central Valley residents as we still have unacceptably poor air quality, which we see that through high asthma rates for children,” said Richards. “Just last week, reports from the California Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association found that the Central Valley still has some of the worst air quality in the nation. As both a Central Valley resident and business owner, I believe that through high-speed rail, we will be able improve the livability of the valley and make the air cleaner for everyone, while at the same time, building new economic and job opportunities for our region.”
“I was surprised during the meeting when board members justified their decisions by proclaiming without their intervention we would all perish in poverty and bad air while somehow agriculture will be saved by this,” commented Olivera, before sarcastically adding, “I suppose we should thank them.
“The reality is that the Authority does not have the funding to successfully construct through the area covered by the EIR, which means they will build a pile of unfinished dirt between Madera and Bakersfield,” Olivera continued, adding that $25 billion was needed to start passenger revenue service.
“Until the Authority can demonstrate that it has the funds to complete a project that provides HSR service from the Central Valley to Southern California and then to the Bay Area, the long-term and broader benefits will not be realized and the merits of the project will be in question,” said Oakland-based attorney Jason Holder in a press release.
Kings County farmers and other residents are also concerned about the proposed path of the line as it passes through Kings County, explained CCHSRA Co-Chair Aaron Fukuda.
“There are too many curves and turns,” said Fukuda. “The curves are too sharp and meander in and out. The funny curves and shapes affect the farmland.” He then commented about post-election decision to not follow existing transportation corridors as promised.
“If you’re not on a main corridor, you double your impact because you’re having impact on both sides,” he said. “We’ve tried to explain this to them. The Authority staff reported that everything is OK. They falsified reports that everything was OK, that in Kings County ‘there’s no problem.’”
“The Authority states that they are working well with local governments and stakeholders, but for some reason not Kings County,” said Olivera. “We support the Kings County Board of Supervisors attempt to deal with the state’s drive over their jurisdiction without regard to the impacts to the public in their jurisdiction. If the Authority cannot build this project in a legal and thoughtful manner, I suppose the project will need to be totally dismantled to allow a proper project to be built.”
“It’s a slap in the face when the (Authority) chairman commits to working with you and never returns your calls,” said Fukuda.
CCHSRA is looking at its options, according to Fukuda, who said, “We’re narrowing down toward litigation.”
The City of Visalia initially expressed an interest in having a high-speed rail station somewhere along the Highway 99 corridor, where most people believed the rail route would be. After the new route was proposed, the City of Visalia stopped lobbying for the station and instead focused its efforts on a connection from the station to the city, according to Fukuda, who expressed disappointment that the city and Kings County are not working toward the same goal.
“If they just kept their mouth shut, it would have preserved our relationship,” he said.
Fukuda raised his concerns about the funding for the proposed Kings County rail station. “There is a thought that local stations aren’t going to be paid for by the High-Speed Rail Authority,” he said. “If Hanford wants a station, Hanford is going to have to pay for it.”
The Fresno-to-Bakersfield high-speed rail section is approximately 114 miles long, from south of the terminus of the Merced-to-Fresno project section to north of the City of Bakersfield. The preferred alternative is comprised of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe alternative, the Corcoran Bypass alternative, the Allensworth Bypass alternative and the Bakersfield Hybrid alternative. Proposed stations include the East of Hanford/West of Visalia Station Option located near Highway 198.
The Federal Railroad Administration will now consider approving the project and issuing a Record of Decision under the National Environmental Policy Act. A decision is expected in June.
The Final EIR/EIS and associated documents are available at www.hsr.ca.gov/Programs/Environmental_Planning/final_fresno_bakersfield.html.
For more information about Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, visit cchsra.org.