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Officials quick to find favor with rail plan

(The following story by Mark Grossi appeared on the Fresno Bee website on February 3.)

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

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

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

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

"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 last week 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, including one in the valley to hear comment on the report.

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 compares high-speed rail with commercial flights and driving. It concludes 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 Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific rail lines. But the corridors are too congested in most cities to include nonstop train service.

Modesto, Merced, Stockton, 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."

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

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