Tulare County Moves Forward With HSR

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While Fresno County was celebrating the official ground breaking of the California High-Speed Rail on January 6, Tulare County was debating whether to sign a cooperative agreement with that same entity. During the Tulare County Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Resource Management Agency staff had originally recommended that the TCBOS sign the agreement. But as the discussion progressed it was clear that the RMA staff needed time to review the HSR overpasses that crossed Highway 43.  It was also clear that the property owners affected by the rail needed some face-time with the HSR staff to clearly voice their concerns.

According to the wording on the agenda item, the Cooperative Agreement with the HSR “provides the framework for the collaboration that will be required between Tulare County and the California High-Speed Rail Authority in the relocation of County facilities to accommodate the High-Speed Rail project.”

The board ended up voting 5-0 to revisit signing the cooperative agreement after RMA and property owners were able to meet with HSR authorities and iron out their differences.

The Fresno-Bakersfield segment of the HSR, roughly 118 miles, includes a 23-mile stretch that transects the southwestern portion of Tulare County through Alpaugh and Tipton. The HSR railroad tracks generally parallel the BSNF Railway tracks, entering Tulare County southeast of Corcoran and exiting west of Road 80 heading toward Wasco. The HSR is predicted to add $100 million in value concerning improvements to county roads and making the BSNF rail crossings safer.

Supervisor Steve Worthley said, this is not about whether the supervisors support HSR.

“This is a vote on how we are going to move forward with the Authority,” he said.

Supervisor Cox said, HSR is going to happen with or without the board of supervisors, “but we want to have a seat at the table.”

Supervisor Vander Poel agreed that his opinion about HSR was irrelevant, but that he would be voting against signing the agreement until certain conditions were met. Vander Poel explained that HSR ran through his own District 2, and that potentially affected property owners have been given no clarity on what will happen to their businesses. He said they needed to know if their businesses will be preserved, accommodated, or taken through eminent domain.

Despite the fact that these property owners have had a hard time getting the attention of HSR, Tulare County has had quite a bit of say in the construction of the rail. Diana Gomez, Central Valley HSR regional director, HSR engineers and Tulare County staff met last year. Those conversations produced several concessions by HSR in terms of route, road closures and overpasses.

The accommodations made by HSR, however, did not mitigate the biggest problems faced by three business owners in the southwest corner of Tulare County. The railroad tracks cut too close or through a dairy, a pig farm and a pistachio orchard.  Because the businesses are all in Vander Poel’s district, he convened a meeting between the business owners, Gomez and HSR engineers.

On January 29, at the RMA conference room, the three business owners met with HSR authorities, RMA and Vander Poel. The meeting began with a review of the maps and evaluation of the road closures and overpasses.  Avenues 136, 108 and 24 are slated to be closed; five overpasses are to be built each over Avenues 88, 112, 128, 120 and 56. To accommodate the frequent use of farm equipment, these overpasses will be wider than the normal 24 feet, to 32 feet.

Because supporters of the historic town of Allensworth vigorously protested the proximity of the rail to the fragile wood houses in the community, HSR is building what is called the Allensworth bypass. Allensworth was the first African-American town west of the Mississippi. Because of the new bypass, a segment of the rail will need to be elevated. Jennifer Hanson, owner of the pig farm next to Alpaugh, suggested that the HSR cancel two of the bypasses and use that money to extend the elevated portion of the rail by a mile. If the elevated rail is extended, it will pass over Greg TeVelde’s mega dairy. Currently, the HSR track would eliminate his anabolic digester. But if the rail were elevated over his property, his digester could be saved.

TeVelde, who comes from an old Tulare County farming family, just built a multi-million dollar anabolic digester to handle all the manure produced by the dairy. TeVelde’s dairy has 25,000 head of cattle, 10,000 of which are milked twice a day.

The two engineers did mention that it was unusual to have five overpasses so close together, especially in such a rural area. Gomez said the five overpasses were a concession to the Tulare County staff over a year ago, but Mike Spata, director of the RMA, said that there has since been a changing of the guard–and that if Tulare County agrees to drop the request for two of the five overpasses, then HSR should in return accommodate TeVelde’s dairy. In addition, if HSR does eliminate the two overpasses, Eric Hansen’s pistachio orchard will experience minimum damage. Through a previous HSR modification, Hanson’s pig farm was saved.

Because of the environmental benefits of the anabolic digester, the state of California provided TeVelde grants to aid in the construction of the facility. In an ironic twist, the same California funds going toward the HSR would be used to tear the digester down, if the HSR cannot accommodate him.

A final item of discussion was a nine-mile stretch of rail with no overpasses. Everyone agreed that it was a sparsely populated, very rural section of the County. But if an emergency occurred, it might take up to 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from the closest hospital in Delano. Though a basically undeveloped area, there are, however, some orchards that are growing in size and a huge solar farm on Atwell Island that will be cut off by the tracks.

Gomez floated the idea of a three-season underpass, primarily to be used in emergencies. Only one has been approved in Madera County on a private farm. HSR would build the structure and then would hand it over to a private owner for them to maintain. Gomez also suggested that HSR pay to connect Avenue 40 to help mobility in the area in case of an emergency.

Gomez said that it would take the Authority two weeks to discuss the viability of the proposed changes to the tracks. A tentative meeting was set for the second week in February to discuss what the Authority will have decided. Vander Poel said that if HSR can accommodate the business owners in his district he will vote in favor of signing the Cooperative Agreement with it.

The next supervisor meeting to discuss the agreement is scheduled for March 3.

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