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High-speed rail route may alter city landscape in Fresno

(The following story by Russell Clemings appeared on The Fresno Bee website on March 21, 2010.)

FRESNO, Calif. — A decade from now, one of Fresno's loftier views might be from the platform of its high-speed train station.

With plans taking shape for the California high-speed rail system's route, it is becoming clear that Fresno's landscape could be in for a Jetsons-style makeover.

It starts with the system's planned downtown station: An estimated 130 feet wide and more than a quarter-mile long, three blocks between Merced and Tulare streets near the Union Pacific tracks.

Like the rest of the high-speed line downtown, it would be elevated 60 feet from ground level to the tracks.

"It's an aircraft carrier, hovering over your town," Sandy Stadtfeld, a consultant to the California High Speed Rail Authority, told a recent meeting of the rail committee of the Council of Fresno County Governments.

Sixty feet. That's almost twice the elevation of the Highway 180 overpass on H Street. It's only about 13 feet lower than the roof of Chukchansi Park and it could exceed even that if a structure is erected over the track beds.

Something that size would forever alter the city's low-rise skyline. But so far the station and the rest of the local high-speed rail plan are getting little attention.

"This has been very under-the-radar in terms of constituent topics," City Council Member Andreas Borgeas said.

Even the station's immediate neighbors in Chinatown are scarcely aware of the plans.

"No one's ever talked to us about it," said Kathy Omachi, a board member of Chinatown Revitalization Inc.

Some of that may be because uncertainty still clouds the high-speed rail project. Less than one-third of the money for the first phase has been secured.

And the exact route and other details depend on decisions yet to be made by the authority and its funding partner, the Federal Railroad Administration. Depending on how much land it needs, the authority could condemn homes and businesses to build the route, though none of those choices has been clearly spelled out.

But on its Web site and at recent open houses in Fresno, the authority has begun to disclose some details of its plans.

Among issues raised as a result are noise from the 220-mph trains and whether a slice of Roeding Park should be sacrificed to make room for the high-speed tracks.

And then there is that 60-foot trestle.

It wouldn't be limited to downtown. Plans call for it to begin rising from ground level at Malaga Avenue, where the high-speed line would lie just west of the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

By the time it reached Central Avenue, the trackbed would be perched atop a row of pillars spaced about 120 feet apart.

Following the Union Pacific tracks north from Calwa, it would remain at 60 feet at least until Ashlan Avenue and possibly beyond, depending on which of two alternatives is chosen for the route in northwest Fresno.

An elevated structure has advantages. It costs about twice as much as a ground-level route but allows local streets to remain open. And it's about half the cost of putting the line in a below-ground trench. But it is certainly big.

"It's going to be an enormous structure," said Tom Lang, whose proposed Aquarius Aquarium would lie just west of the likely route at its San Joaquin River crossing.

Teams of consultants are currently reviewing alternatives for the system's route from Merced to Bakersfield.

Their work is driven by a 2012 deadline to begin spending $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funds. The San Joaquin Valley segments are among those eligible to use the stimulus money.

By 2020, the high-speed system is supposed to link San Francisco and Anaheim with 220-mph trains. Other destinations -- north to Sacramento and south to Riverside and San Diego -- would be added in later phases.

The estimated cost for the first phase is $42.6 billion, including $9 billion from a bond issue approved by California voters in November 2008. The authority is confident that it will get the remainder from other federal sources, local governments and private investors such as pension funds.

Fresno city officials say they are closely monitoring the plans, even as they relish the economic development potential of sub-two-hour travel times to downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Noise is one major concern. At top speed, a non-stop train at ground level is likely to produce a 98-decibel roar for a few seconds.

That sound level is not exactly ear-splitting. It's roughly equal to a freight train's horn, maybe a little less.

Nevertheless, city development director John Dugan said the 60-foot trestle may have to be topped by 20-foot walls to reduce noise to 65 decibels or less, about as loud as a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher.

How would that look -- a 20-foot ribbon running 60 feet overhead?

"If it's designed correctly it could be very graceful," Dugan said. "But certainly that's an issue -- just a big structure in the sky where you don't expect to see something."

There may be alternatives to 20-foot sound walls, such as soundproofing for nearby buildings, but the walls remain under consideration, said Carrie Bowen, the authority's Central Valley regional director.

Also under study is whether the high-speed tracks and Fresno station should be east of the Union Pacific tracks, next to downtown, or west of them in Chinatown.

The city would prefer the former, but that would require the high-speed system to cross the railroad twice. A station on the west side is "not as direct but it would still work," Dugan said.

At Roeding Park, system planners face a similar choice: Run the high-speed tracks east of the railroad and take out a lot of houses, or run them on the west and take out part of the park. One option being considered is to reduce the width of Golden State Boulevard to minimize the park impact, Dugan said.

North of Ashlan Avenue, planners are trying to decide whether to wedge the high-speed system between the railroad and Highway 99, which would require them to nudge the freeway slightly west. The other alternative is a new route west of the freeway between roughly McKinley and Shaw avenues.

The studies now under way are expected to result in environmental reports that will be reviewed by the authority's board and released for public comment, probably some time this fall, Bowen said.

Monday, March 22, 2010

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