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Calif. bullet train details revealed

(The following story by Mark Grossi appeared on The Fresno Bee website on January 29.)

FRESNO, Calif. -- A bullet train from downtown Fresno to Bakersfield would cover 106 miles in 35 minutes. The construction cost: $2.55 billion.

But a statewide high-speed rail system linking Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area might offer the San Joaquin Valley more than quick trips. How about some of the 450,000 jobs that the system would create?

Those details haven't been worked out yet, but many eye-opening numbers are coming out of an environmental impact report made public this week by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The authority board met Wednesday in Fresno to present the report.

The Valley's portion of this $33 billion rail proposal would include 270 miles of the 700-mile system. In some places, trains could reach 220 miles per hour, using technology that has been common for decades in Europe.

Central California public officials greeted the idea with open arms.

"High-speed rail makes sense for this region," said board member Fran Florez of Shafter, the Valley's only representative on the authority's nine-member board.

Activists who have followed the high-speed rail process for many years complained Wednesday that they were not allowed to speak. Some wanted to support a controversial, discarded route -- the Altamont Pass -- as a Valley connection to the Bay Area.

The authority instead is considering two other alternatives, Pacheco Pass in Merced County and a tunnel through part of the Diablo Range northwest of Newman in Stanislaus County.

"There has been very little public process for this draft EIR," said Ken Gosting, director of a Central California group called Transportation Involves Everyone.

But officials said they will hold five meetings to hear public comment on the report. The Valley will get one of the meetings, which have not been scheduled.

Officials from Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield made some general comments Wednesday. They said the Valley has some of the highest unemployment in the country and wondered whether the board would consider the Valley as a hub for train repair and maintenance.

"I'm sure this could help turn things around here," said Merced County Supervisor Gloria Cortez Keene.

The high-speed rail proposal is not detailed enough to answer employment questions yet.

Among many other analyses, the study compared high-speed rail with commercial flights and driving. It concluded that the state would have to invest $82 billion in the next 17 years to build enough roads and airports for the growing California population.

"High-speed rail is less than half of the cost," said Mehdi Morshed, authority executive director.

If voters approve a $9.9 billion bond measure on the November ballot, the plans would become far more detailed.

High-Speed Rail Authority staffers outlined two possible Valley corridors, the Burlington North-Santa Fe and Union Pacific rail lines. But the corridors are too congested in most cities to include nonstop train service.

Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield are all envisioned with a bypass loop so nonstop trains can roll without pause toward metropolitan centers.

In Fresno, such as bypass would cost an extra $700 million.

"To avoid Fresno, we had to pull way out around the west side of the city," said authority deputy director Paula Pourvahidi.

Some cities, such as Merced and Bakersfield, have several station options. Fresno has settled on one proposed train station, the old Southern Pacific depot downtown.

The train stations should improve business in the nearby areas, officials said.

An electrified rail system also would not pollute nearly as much as more freeways, board members said.

A Merced orthodontist, Lee Boese, reacted by saying, "How can this not be built? With the amount of cancer and asthma we see in this Valley, our air problems are only going to get worse."

Friday, January 30, 2004

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