CA: California Boards to Take Up HSR Issues

Aug. 11--The California High-Speed Rail Authority board will contemplate a proposal Tuesday to use cap-and-trade money to accelerate plans in Southern California while construction starts in the San Joaquin Valley.

And on Wednesday, another state board could authorize condemnation proceedings to begin on five properties in Fresno and Madera counties for construction of the first 29-mile stretch of the statewide bullet-train line, and approve the site selection of nearly 160 properties in Fresno and Kings counties.

The rail authority's meeting is the first public session for the agency since the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed in June to allocate $250 million in cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail this year.

The funds come from money paid into the state's greenhouse-gas reduction program by companies to buy pollution credits for their own emissions.

The agreement also sets aside 25% of all cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail in subsequent budget years.

The cap-and-trade money for the rail project is in addition to more than $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation funds from the Obama administration and almost $3 billion from Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008. The $6 billion is being used to develop about 140 miles of rail line between Madera and Bakersfield.

The initial construction sections in the Valley are anticipated to become the backbone of a high-speed rail line to connect the San Francisco Bay Area with the Los Angeles Basin.

Rail authority CEO Jeff Morales, in response to requests and concerns from legislators, is asking the agency's board to adopt a policy steering future cap-and-trade money -- potentially billions of dollars a year -- toward development of the proposed Palmdale-to-Burbank section of the statewide rail system and other improvements in the Palmdale-Los Angeles rail corridor.

"It is the authority's commitment and intent ... to use these funds to accelerate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and put new emphasis on improvements in urban areas," Morales wrote in a memo to the board.

Palmdale-Burbank is "a key segment that could be accelerated by cap-and-trade proceeds as they become available," Morales said. "This strategy would allow the authority to build from two directions simultaneously" to complete a $31 billion operating segment between Merced and the Southland.

The cost to build the 520-mile, San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system is forecast to be about $68 billion. No cost estimates have been made for future extensions of the routes to Sacramento and San Diego.

Between the San Joaquin Valley -- where demolition is taking place now and construction is expected to begin this summer -- and investments in Southern California, however, a significant gap remains in the state's passenger rail system: the section south of Bakersfield.

Passengers on Amtrak's San Joaquin trains heading to Los Angeles now have to board buses at Bakersfield to ferry them to L.A.'s Union Station. The rail authority's plan is to connect its Valley sections to the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles by way of Palmdale through the Tehachapi Mountains southeast of Bakersfield.

Tuesday's meeting comes after justices with the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal handed the rail authority a pair of significant legal victories in recent weeks:

On July 24, a three-judge panel upheld a lower court's approval of an environmental report that selected the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and Los Banos as the preferred corridor for high-speed trains between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley.

On July 31, three different judges overturned two lower-court rulings from November 2013. The appellate justices ordered Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny to approve the sale of bonds from Proposition 1A, and vacated a ruling by Kenny that the rail authority's preliminary 2011 funding plan failed to comply with Prop. 1A requirements.

The rail agency continues to face other legal hurdles, however. One portion of a lawsuit filed by Kings County rail opponents, due to be heard by Kenny this fall or winter, alleges that the authority's statewide rail project cannot comply operationally with several key criteria of Prop. 1A. Rail foes believe:

That the trains won't be able to complete a trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes.

That sharing commuter rail tracks makes the project substantially different than Prop. 1A's call for fully dedicated tracks for the entire route.

That the trains won't be able to operate without a financial subsidy as required by the 2008 ballot measure.

There also are six separate lawsuits filed against the rail agency under the California Environmental Quality Act over the approval of the Fresno-Bakersfield section of the system.

The lawsuits allege that an environmental impact report failed to adequately examine all of the possible effects of the rail line on communities, residents and businesses, or provide sufficient measures to make up for those impacts.

Public Works Board

On Wednesday, the state Public Works Board -- a panel composed of the directors of the state's Finance, General Services and Transportation departments -- will consider a request from the high-speed rail authority to approve the selection of 158 parcels for the rail route between the south edge of Fresno and Highway 198 in Kings County.

The parcels have been identified as needed, either in whole or in part, for the bullet-train right of way and associated structures such as road overpasses.

But until the site selections have been approved by the Public Works Board, the rail agency cannot get into serious negotiations or make offers to property owners whose land is in the path of the route.

Also on Wednesday, the board is being asked to consider adopting resolutions of public necessity that would allow eminent domain or condemnation proceedings to be filed in local Superior Courts for five properties in Fresno and Madera counties.

The Fresno properties include the site of a Valero gasoline station at the northeast corner of Shaw and Jennifer avenues, a short distance east of the Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks and Golden State Boulevard; the Holiday Motel on Golden State Boulevard on Olive Avenue between Olive and West avenues; a vacant parcel at the northeast corner of Belmont and Harrison avenues, east of Golden State and the UPRR tracks; and a parcel on the corner of Fresno and G streets, next to the Jensen & Pilegard power equipment store in downtown Fresno.

In southern Madera County, just across the San Joaquin River from Fresno County, the potential condemnation target is farmland property owned by Pacific Orchards on the north side of Avenue 7, east of Highway 99.

If you go

HIGH-SPEED RAIL

What: California High-Speed Rail Authority board meeting

When: 9 a.m. Tuesday

Where: Byron Sher Auditorium at California EPA, 1001 I St., Sacramento

Online: The meeting will be webcast live and the agenda and support materials are available, click on the tab for the August 2014 meeting.

PUBLIC WORKS BOARD

What: California State Public Works Board

When: 10 a.m. Wednesday

Where: State Capitol, Room 113, Sacramento

Online: The complete agenda

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

Copyright 2014 - The Fresno Bee

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