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Reactions mixed to rail report

(The following article by David Chircop was posted on the Merced Sun-Star website on January 30.)

MERCED, Calif. -- A high-speed rail system linking California's major cities would zip 68 million passengers across the state at speeds exceeding 200 mph and create 450,000 new jobs by 2020.

That's according to a draft environmental impact released this week.

The rail system would be less than half as expensive and more environmentally friendly than building highways and airports to meet the state's travel demands, the report states.

Release of the 2,000-page document this week marks a major step toward the future of transportation in the state, and the Central Valley, which would make up a 270-mile stretch of the 700-mile system.

The generally upbeat report encouraged some Merced County high-speed rail enthusiasts, while leaving others disappointed.

Still, in spite of its rosy projections, the realization of such a project would require years of planning, costing tens of billions of dollars.

Beyond that, political bickering and environmental challenges -- which have already begun to surface -- may make the project even more complicated to complete.

The document looks at three options to deal with California's transportation needs as the population grows by 11 million people and intercity travel increases as much as 63 percent over the next 20 years

Under the first scenario, the state would build only those highway and airport projects currently in the planning stages. Under the second, the state would build those projects and add an additional 2,970 miles of new highway lanes, nearly 60 new airport gates and five runways at a cost of nearly $82 billion in today's dollars.

The third option calls for a 700-mile rail system to supplement the current planned highway and airport projects. The rail system would cost from $33 billion to $37 billion in today's dollars.

"Our conclusion is, and data shows, that basically the high-speed train is the best of the three options," said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The report also details the impact of two proposed routes that would link Merced County with the Bay Area, something local high-speed rail advocates have eagerly anticipated.

"It's very viable and very positive," said Dr. Lee Boese Jr., a Merced dentist who spoke to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board in Fresno on Wednesday.

Boese, who heads the Merced County High Speed Rail Committee -- a private group seeking to locate a bullet train station and construction facility at the former Castle Air Force Base -- said his initial readings of the Merced-to-Bay Area portion of the report leave him hopeful.

The first option, across the Diablo Range, would place Merced on the Los Angeles-to-Bay Area train line, providing more frequent service to Merced.

The option would also require the construction of a 31-mile tunnel beneath Henry Coe State Park. If built, the tunnel would be among the longest in the world.

The preferred option, to Boese and his group, Diablo Range would keep Castle in the running.

The second route examined in the report would follow Pacheco Pass, placing Merced on the Sacramento-to-Bay Area train line. A station, under that option, would be placed east of Los Banos, ending near Chowchilla.

Like the Diablo option, it, too, would require significant tunneling, including a 13.5-mile stretch across the pass.

If picked, a station would be located near Los Banos, which would not be serviced in the Diablo Range option is chosen.

Of the two routes that were studied, the Pacheco route would have the most significant impact on farmland east of Interstate 5, and the lest favorable ridership potential, according to the report.

Still, activists who have followed the high speed rail process since its inception insist that a route that was not considered in the report should be considered.

"We have concerns and objections," said Ken Gosting, director of a Central Valley transportation group. Gosting, and others believe that the Rail Authority has discarded the Altamont Pass route, which they believe would be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than the other proposed routes.

"We want to see it done and done right, because what's at stake here is a paradigm shift for transportation in the United States," he said. "If it's a botch in California, other states won?t touch the concept."

Officials with the authority will schedule five public hearings on the report throughout the state, including one in the Central Valley.

Friday, January 30, 2004

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