Skepticism about California high speed rail boondoggle grows through cracks in the flak

Submitted: Aug 14, 2011
Badlands Journal editorial board

A compliation of recent articles on the California high speed railroad boondoggle show that people along the proposed routes are growing more skeptical by the day ... except of course for the dim-witted burgermeisters of Merced. -- blj


Merced Sun-Star

Merced council to hold Monday study session on grant for proposed high-speed rail station downtown…Sun-Star Staff


The Merced City Council will hold a study session at 5:30 p.m. Monday to discuss a planning grant for a downtown high-speed rail station and get an update on the city's graffiti contract.

The city can receive up to $600,000 in grant money for planning in the area included in a half-mile radius from the proposed station. The city will hold workshops and meetings to obtain public comment and direction on the project.

The station is proposed for an area between G Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way next to the Union Pacific tracks. The grant will be used to explore a station area plan and transportation plan for the area, and include an economic feasibility study for the station area, the city said in a news release.

The council will also see a presentation on the work being done by its graffiti contractor, Environmental Compliance Resources. The contractor was hired by the city last year to track and abate graffiti in the city.

Also on the agenda is a request on whether the city should expend limited resources on a Just Cause for Eviction ordinance and the annual appointment of members to the Bicycle Advisory Commission, Building and Housing Board of Appeals, Downtown Steering Committee, Planning Commission and the Recreation and Parks Commission.

The regular City Council meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the council chamber on the second floor of the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.

The council agenda is posted online at and is available outside the chamber before the meeting. "Request to Speak" cards are available at the meeting or can be downloaded from the city's website. Cards must be turned in to the city clerk in order for a person to be recognized by the council.




Fresno Bee

High-speed rail plan impacts Valley roads…Tim Sheehan

A two-mile stretch of one of the busiest highways in the central San Joaquin Valley will have to scoot over by 100 feet to make way for high-speed rail.

The relocation of Highway 99 in west-central Fresno is just one of the big changes in store if the massive rail project is built.

Dozens of railroad crossings would close, and new overpasses and undercrossings would be built on country roads and city streets. With trains moving at up to 220 mph, there won't be any gated railroad crossings on the high-speed line.

On the other hand, some officials say that could ease traffic congestion and cut down on noise from freight train horns.

The roadway changes are among the details packed into 10,000 or so pages of draft environmental-impact reports for the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections.

The reports were released last week for 45 days of public comment, and they are sure to generate reaction from affected businesses and residents, as well as city officials across the Valley.

The result would be sweeping changes to the Valley's transportation landscape.

The most visible and dramatic change is likely to be shifting a two-mile portion of Highway 99 between Ashlan and Clinton avenues. That's where the six-lane freeway snuggles up against a Union Pacific Railroad yard, leaving no room to shoehorn the new high-speed tracks into their planned route.

Moving a freeway

City officials worry that shoving Highway 99 westward by 100 feet or so, and closing three offramps in the vicinity, would displace established businesses on the west side of the freeway, and also disrupt traffic on nearby neighborhood streets.

"When they move it over, they are proposing to eliminate southbound ramps at Dakota, Shields and Princeton avenues," City Engineer Scott Mozier said. "We're worried about access in that area."

"If we're going to support closing those ramps, both Clinton and Ashlan need to be able to handle the added traffic," Mozier said. "And that's not just the freeway on- and offramps, but the local street pattern. ... As we start to look at streets like Brawley, Valentine, Marks and Shields avenues, there may be improvements necessary."

And the city likely will be looking to the rail authority to shoulder the cost of that work.

The rail authority estimates it would cost about $142 million to rebuild the two-mile portion of freeway. Authority representatives don't know yet if Caltrans, the state's highway department, would be asked to share a portion of the cost.

But Caltrans may not have the money. Even without a high-speed rail line, the agency has been talking about closing the Dakota and Princeton ramps, Mozier said, "but they have not had any funding to deal with that."

Elsewhere in Fresno, the rail authority plans to shift a 4.5-mile stretch of Golden State Boulevard between Herndon and Ashlan avenues, and to close another portion of Golden State between Olive and Belmont avenues next to Roeding Park. South of downtown Fresno, portions of G Street and Railroad Avenue could be closed.

Those streets aren't particularly scenic, "but there are a number of vibrant, industrial-type businesses out there, they employ a lot of folks, and they are critical to the local economy," Mozier said. They include trucking depots, warehouses, metal fabricators, automotive and diesel repair facilities and other industrial enterprises.

The city expects the authority to compensate businesses affected by the project, including relocation assistance if they are forced to move. "The city also definitely wants to see those businesses retained in the local community," Mozier added.

The changes to Golden State could mean trouble for Fresno's zoo as well.

At Roeding Park, where a new Chaffee Zoo master plan calls for a main entrance from Golden State, the city will press to maintain the road at least as a two-lane access street. "It does not need to be a four-lane there," Mozier said. "But we are very concerned about access to the new zoo entrance."

But Mozier said Fresno also looks forward to improved traffic flow and safety near the tracks, including new overpasses or undercrossings where cars now must wait for freight trains. The new structures will take streets over or under both the high-speed tracks and the existing Union Pacific freight line.

"It's one of those things you don't think about until you're trying to get where you're going, and then here comes the train," Mozier said. "Every now and then they can be stopped for a long period of time."

Overpasses would mean freight trains won't have to sound their air horns at crossings. "We would essentially have a de facto railroad quiet zone along the Union Pacific line," Mozier said.

South of downtown Fresno, things are more complicated. The city is worried about closing several railroad crossings, including Van Ness Avenue -- where an iconic arch proclaims the entrance to "the best little city in the U.S.A."

"That's an industrial area we've been seeking to develop and have prosper," Mozier said. "We're really going to be taking a hard look at circulation and how we can keep that area viable."

Concerns and fears

North and south of Fresno, some city leaders anticipate improved traffic flow as overpasses reduce the need for motorists to idle at crossings waiting for trains to pass.

"When you look at the grade-separated crossings that we're going to get ... Merced will be a better city because of high-speed rail," Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs said at a recent rail authority meeting. "There are challenges, but there are engineering solutions."

But others are concerned that the high-speed rails would divide their towns, much as the construction of Highway 99 did decades ago. In Chowchilla, the mayor wants no part of tracks running through the small farming city.

Chowchilla sits in what Mayor David Alexander calls a "spaghetti bowl" surrounded by potential high-speed rail routes. Between two main options -- one along the Union Pacific rail line and Highway 99, the other along the Burlington Northern tracks a few miles to the east -- and one "hybrid" route that includes parts of both, there are also variations and bypasses and several alternatives for westward lines toward Gilroy and San Jose.

Alexander fears tracks through the city will disrupt the ability of residents, emergency vehicles, school buses and others to get from one side of town to the other. He also is worried about businesses that would be forced to move to make way for the tracks.

Chowchilla officials say the effects will be less if the rails go through the countryside. "I don't like the city taking a position against our farmers," Alexander said. "But it's a matter of what has the least impact on the city."

Outside the cities, farmers up and down the Valley have their own set of concerns.

Since no roads can cross the tracks at grade, farmers want to know how far the nearest crossings are from their farms, and how much more it will cost for them to drive their equipment the extra miles to reach fields and orchards on the other side of the tracks.

"We don't understand how they're going to compensate you fairly for adding five or seven miles driving your farm equipment every day to get to the other side of your place," said Frank Oliveira, a Hanford-area farmer who has been a vocal critic of the authority's proposed route through Kings County.

In the countryside along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route options from Merced through the Tulare-Kern county line, about 27 existing rural rail crossings would be closed. But plans call for more than 60 new crossings over or under the high-speed tracks.

In areas where farms are bisected by the tracks -- a particular complaint in Kings County as the line would slice diagonally through some properties east of Hanford -- the environmental reports state that the authority's agents can work with farmers to arrange for underpasses or small overcrossings to get to the other side of their land.

Rail authority representatives said that in response to agriculture's worries, the environmental-impact reports include more overpasses or undercrossings for country roads than were originally planned.

"There would be grade-separated crossings, usually overpasses," officials wrote in an email. Those crossings would be placed "about every one to two miles to provide local residents and farm operations continued convenient access."

Bakersfield Californian

INGA BARKS: High-speed rail 'great idea!' -- for some…INGA BARKS

I've been wracking my brain, trying to understand why no matter what anyone says about California high-speed rail, supporters come back with a stepford wife-like response about how great it is. How they trust in a government project, by the very government that's been working on variations of this train since the 1990s, only to come up with 190 miles of an 800-mile route, and local civic leaders who admitted this week that they can't run a dog pound!

And then I had a caller to my radio show Wednesday who answered the question. His name was Ruben, and he was a seemingly reasonable man who said things like "no matter how much it costs, high speed rail is worth it." When I asked him about homeowners in a proposed route who won't know for years if they'll be displaced, putting them and their property values in a holding pattern, Ruben said, "Houses are losing value right now anyway." When I mentioned the new study that says the 190-mile Central Valley stretch is already over budget, he said, "It's just a great idea." For Ruben, there was no farm land or home too sacred or cost too high because, as he said, "It's a great idea."

That was it! The answer! It doesn't matter what anyone says. It doesn't matter that there are multiple lawsuits against high-speed rail by cities that don't like the plan, or by citizens, both liberal and conservative, who don't believe that the High Speed Rail Authority knows what it's doing. It doesn't matter that the project's own researchers, along with Stanford University and financial experts, say the project is overpriced, has grossly overexaggerated the potential ridership by double, and has few if any investors to shore up the (estimated) $70 billion this train might cost above and beyond the $9 billion bond measure approved by the voters in 2008! None of this matters because the Rubens of the world have it in their heads that it's a "great idea."

And it IS a great idea. But so is winning the lottery! So is 100 percent employment! So is curing cancer! And? So, because it sounds nifty we're willing to set aside the latest research that shows thousands in the Central Valley alone being moved from homes and business, acres and acres of farmland being plowed over, and in more than 300 locations between Bakersfield and Fresno, the noise of a rushing train will impact "sensitive receivers" -- whatever that means. (I'm assuming it's gonna hurt some ears.)

Oh, and my favorite part? Kern County has been informed by the newly released EIR (environmental impact report) that one of its own recommended sites for a HSR maintenance yard puts both noise and hazardous materials within close proximity of schools.

Isn't this the same county that was in a near panic when an oil refinery wanted to use a hazardous material that some claimed would kill everyone within a two-mile radius if spilled! Now, we don't mind putting hazardous materials near school children if we can get to the Bay area quickly?

My theory? Whether high-speed rail ever actually happens, there are billions in state and federal funds to be spent on planning, development, environmental research and consulting. Whether it ever gets built, being able to report that one's political career included hooking the big contract for a train station or maintenance yard is a nice bragging right. Whether a track is ever put on the ground, your money is being spent right now to hire people to talk about laying down tracks. And if the research shows that plans for high-speed rail are riddled with problems, all the better! Everyone gets to go back to the drawing board and get paid to talk about new routes, locations and cost. And politicians get to brag about new partnerships that will create many jobs -- at consulting firms and research labs.

My caller Ruben was right. For many, high-speed rail is a "great idea!"


Merced Sun-Star

Calif. cities argue case to block high-speed train…ADAM WEINTRAUB, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. Cities on the peninsula south of San Francisco made their case Friday to halt the extension of California's proposed high-speed rail line through the area.

If successful, the coalition that includes Palo Alto, Atherton and Menlo Park would jeopardize plans to bring high-speed rail into one of California's top destinations.

Lawyers for the group asked Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny to block the California High-Speed Rail Authority from proceeding with a route between San Francisco and the Central Valley. They say planners made flawed estimates of ridership and ignored traffic problems and other possible impacts.

"There will be congestion on highways south of San Jose that people won't be aware of, and they should have been made aware," said Stuart Flashman, attorney for the coalition.

Lawyers for the rail authority argued that it was too early in the project for the kind of detailed analysis the plaintiffs demand and that those environmental effects will be examined in the next phase of work.

The judge is expected to rule within 90 days.

Detailed reports on the first planned segment of the high-speed rail line, between Merced and Bakersfield, were released this week. They showed estimated costs of $10 billion to $13.9 billion, far higher than a 2009 estimate that projected the segment would cost $7.1 billion.

Construction in that stretch is scheduled to start next year.

The total cost of connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim with high-speed service by 2020, previously estimated at $43 billion, also is expected to rise.

Opponents of the project question whether California can afford the project, especially as costs escalate, and say ridership projections are overly optimistic.

Voters approved $9 billion in state bonds for the project in 2008.

San Francisco Chronicle


Should California keep going on high-speed rail?

44% Yes, it is the future of transportation

44% No, strapped state can't afford cost overruns

12% Look at Europe - great rail, even more broke than us

Total votes so far: 1,569

This is not a scientific poll, but a tabulation of readers' responses.

The future of high speed rail in California…Jerry Hill. Jerry Hill is the Assemblyman for the 19th District, which includes parts of unincorporated San Mateo County and the cities of Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, Daly City, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Hillsborough, Millbrae, Pacifica, San Bruno, San Mateo and South San Francisco.

In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 1A, the $9.95 billion bond measure to provide a portion of the funds the state will need to construct a high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

I voted for Proposition 1A because it seemed to be good public policy. Done right, high-speed rail has the potential to meet the future transportation demands of California's growing population by providing a green alternative to new freeway lanes and airport runways.

But much has changed in the past three years, including the reliability and accuracy of the cost and ridership projections on which Proposition 1A was based, and ballooning costs and uncertain revenue potential.

California faces many challenges that are certain to be exacerbated by the gridlock in Washington and upheaval on Wall Street. Despite success in securing stimulus dollars, future federal funding will be reduced significantly in the coming years. Control of the House of Representatives has also changed, increasing the likelihood that funding for high-speed rail will be on the chopping block.

In Sacramento, the Legislature is evaluating state programs as we struggle to balance revenues and expenditures. California has had to cut more than $30 billion from its budget in the last three years. The state has important needs, including more than $20 billion owed to its schools and colleges.

The question we need to ask is: "Does high-speed rail make fiscal sense - and is now the time?" In 2008 we were told that federal funding would make up nearly half of the money needed to complete the first phase of the $33 billion project, with the private sector contributing 25 percent, and the rest to be picked up by state and local governments.

Information released this week indicates that the cost of constructing just the first phase of high-speed rail from San Francisco to Anaheim has swelled to more than $60 billion. Federal, state and local funds committed to date make up less than a quarter of the actual cost.

The Legislative Analyst's Office reported that the "availability of the funding necessary for the new system is highly uncertain." Were California to borrow money to fund the remaining 75 percent of the project costs without funding from other sources, opponents estimate it would create an annual obligation of more than $4 billion on our general fund for 30 years.

This would raise the state's annual debt service payment to a dangerous level and siphon funding from other programs and infrastructure projects.

The anticipated operating costs for the system also appear improbable in light of the fact that under Proposition 1A, the project cannot have an operating subsidy.

The High-Speed Rail Authority's 2009 Business Plan estimated that a ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $105, which amounts to about 24 cents per mile for the 432-mile trip. However, in Europe and Japan, which successfully operate high-speed rail systems, the charge averages 44 cents per mile, according to research by the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail. The authority's 2009 business plan was not realistic.

Ridership projections from the authority have been called into question. Studies conducted by UC Berkeley and the Federal Railroad Administration found the authority's ridership projections may be highly inflated.

Even the authority's own peer review panel raised concerns about the forecasting model used to estimate ridership projections and recommended "any use of the model include some steps to make the demand forecasts more conservative, especially in forecasts for financial (investment and risk) analysis."

In an effort to improve the outcome of the project, the Legislature is in the process of shifting responsibility of the day-to-day functions of the autonomous authority to a state agency to provide greater oversight and transparency, as advised by the analyst's office. This move is critical, because the state auditor identified accounting problems within the authority, which has already spent $250 million, most of it paying for studies and public relations.

Voters like myself were under the impression that if we approved the $9.95 billion in Prop. 1A, the rest of the money to complete the project would pour in. Now it remains unclear whether the private sector is willing to finance the project due to cost increases and other uncertainties.

We are approaching a critical crossroad. We have spent $250 million to date but construction of phase one could require us to spend more than $100 billion on debt service over 30 years. If we start construction without private funding or assurances of further federal financial support, the California taxpayers will be responsible for nearly the entire cost of the project.

Where do we go from here? The answer will come soon. The authority's newest business plan - its third - is scheduled to be released in October. It will tell us if cost estimates have been modified and if the funding and passenger projections are sound.

I hope that this project can proceed for many reasons, including job creation, modernizing our transportation system and reducing our reliance on energy imports. We should explore combining existing rail infrastructure throughout the state with the high-speed rail system to help defray project costs.

But if the numbers in the business plan are unrealistic, the project should be put on hold to allow Californians to vote on whether they are willing to absorb the additional costs or want to pull the plug.

Video: Assemblyman Jerry Hill says high speed rail is too expensive now. Go to http://

High-speed rail: Stimulus or spending boondoggle?...Frederick Jordan, Darlene Mar. Frederick Jordan is chairman of the Associated Professionals and Contractors of California and president and chairman of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce. Darlene Mar is the West Coast president and interim executive director of the National Council of Asian American Business Associations.

California has secured more than $3.6 billion in federal funding, with the potential infusion of billions more, to build a high-speed rail system. With construction set to begin on the Central Valley portion of the 800-mile project, it is worth asking whether this massive outlay of taxpayer dollars will translate into the economic boon that our state desperately needs.

As representatives of small and minority-owned businesses, our answer is clearly "no" - at least not without major changes in the way the California High-Speed Rail Authority does business.

Federal stimulus dollars are supposed to go to the communities hit hardest by the recession, to help revitalize our local economies. In the past, when the federal government has poured money into public works projects, it has done so not just to firm up our nation's infrastructure but also to bolster the economy. During the Great Depression, for example, New Deal programs created to renovate parks, bridges and roads were focused primarily on putting our nation's businesses and workforce back on track.

So far, that's not happening with California's high-speed rail. Nearly $1 billion already has been committed for preliminary environmental and engineering work on the rail system, yet almost all of that money has gone to large, multinational companies, some foreign-owned, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed in December by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Meanwhile, small, minority- and women-owned businesses have been almost completely excluded, according to the complaint.

Federal investigators want to know why. This spring, a representative from the Federal Railroad Administration was in California looking into the complaint, which documents that on 10 megamillion-dollar environmental and design contracts already awarded, minority-owned participation is virtually nonexistent. Statistics on participation by small businesses paint an equally grim picture. Over the past six fiscal years, less than 4 percent of California's bullet train contracting dollars have gone to small businesses. More than two dozen small businesses, many with decades-long experience in fields required on the rail project, have told federal investigators that they never were made aware of lucrative contracting opportunities when they were being awarded. The investigation is pending.

When small and minority-owned firms are allowed to compete on a level playing field, the ripple effect is astounding. They win contracts, hire local workers from minority communities, spend money locally and contribute to community revitalization. None of the benefits are realized when procurement systems are closed and insular.

That's why small and minority business groups are calling on the state and federal government to:

-- Demand transparency and accountability in the High-Speed Rail Authority's distribution of funds;

-- Insist that all potential contracting opportunities be opened up to all interested firms through broad public outreach and selection; and

-- Put a stop to the Rail Authority's practice of simply funneling contracting dollars to large international firms.

We also are calling upon the Obama administration to stop all federal funds to the project until the Rail Authority overhauls its restrictive procurement system and reassigns components of the mega-contracts already awarded to businesses that reflect the full diversity of our state.

Otherwise, the project will turn out to be nothing but a spending boondoggle that will leave California's economy floundering even further.



China's enthusiasm for high-speed rail stalls…JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer

BEIJING -- China's infatuation with high-speed rail soured at bullet train velocity.

Six months ago, the rail network was a success symbol and the basis of a planned high-tech export industry. But after a July crash that killed 40 people, Beijing has suspended new construction and is recalling problem-plagued trains, raising questions about the future of such prestige projects.

It was an extraordinary reversal for a project that once enjoyed political status on a level with China's manned space program.

High-speed rail has been, along with nuclear power, among an array of areas where critics warn that breakneck, government-driven development might be jeopardizing public safety and adding to financial risks.

In nuclear power, Beijing said earlier this year that it would press ahead with its rapid expansion of China's industry despite Japan's Fukushima disaster.

But with bullet trains, the July 23 collision combined with experts' warnings about costs and dangers to persuade Beijing to take the rare step of scaling back a major project - a move that might have repercussions in other fields and could affect the appeal of Chinese technology abroad.

"If they are taking one step back to think again about these railway programs, more broadly it should have an impact on their overall planning of such projects," said Xianfang Ren, chief China economist for IHS Global Insight.

Policymakers are deciding China needs to "rectify the excesses" of its system and slow an unsustainably fast expansion, Ren said in a report. "It is quite clear now that stepping on the brake is the only viable policy option."

The train disaster has been a high-profile illustration of the weaknesses of government-led development, though no one expects the ruling Communist Party to change what many see as the root problem - its pervasive role in the economy, technology and industry.

In economics, the ruling party has traded most elements of central planning for market-style reforms. But in science, it still sees direct government involvement as essential to achieving its goal of transforming China from a nation of farmers and factory workers into a prosperous creator of technology.

The government has issued development plans for fields from clean energy to computers and has promised money for research and other support.

That strategy has led to complaints that decision-making is politicized, authorities ignore environmental and other costs and public money is wasted on dubious projects such as the development of a Chinese mobile phone standard that attracted few users abroad.

"The government plays a leading role in all these public projects, which should not really be the case," said Zhao Jian, a railway expert at Beijing Jiaotong University and one of the most prominent critics of high-speed rail plans.

Even before the July crash, the bullet train was a target of critics who said it was dangerously fast and too expensive for a society where the poor majority need more low-cost transportation, not record-setting speeds.

Warnings by Zhao and other experts prompted Beijing to cut the top speed in April from 350 kph (220 mph) to 300 kph (190 mph).

This week, the government announced another speed reduction for second-tier trains and said it was launching a nationwide safety inspection. On Friday, the manufacturer of bullet trains used on the new Beijing-Shanghai line recalled 54 trains following repeated delays blamed on equipment failures.

Those changes solve immediate problems but fail to get at "deeper trouble," Zhao said.

"I don't see any signs that the government is doing anything to expand this overhaul to other areas or even reshape its development pattern," he said.

In nuclear power, Beijing's rapid expansion of its industry, both to curb reliance on fossil fuels and to support development of Chinese equipment manufacturers, has prompted similar warnings that it is moving too fast and might jeopardize public safety.

China has 13 nuclear reactors and 28 more under construction, which critics say is causing a shortage of qualified technicians and equipment.

An official of an industry group was quoted by state media in March as saying the Communist Party's latest five-year plan shifts from "energetic development" to "safe and highly efficient development," but the government has yet to release details.

Support for the bullet train began to erode in February after its main official booster, then-railway minister Liu Zhijun, was dismissed amid a graft probe.

State media, normally cheerleaders for the government, have begun reporting on the bullet train's excesses in a sign that official sentiment is turning against it.

On Friday, state broadcaster China Central Television showed scenes of an apartment complex in the eastern province of Anhui over which a bullet train viaduct was built on huge concrete pillars. Residents were shown complaining about the noise of passing trains and damage to property values.

China has 13 high-speed railways in operation, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned. Earlier plans called for expanding the network to 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of track by 2020, though their current status is unclear.

Beijing also is pushing for its train manufacturers and builders of high-speed lines to export. They have sold trains to Malaysia and are involved in building systems in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Chinese contractors want to bid for work on a planned California high-speed line, though it might be harder to woo buyers who see China's government has lost faith in its own system.

Global Insight's Ren said she sees no sign the government might scale back its export plans, which are a core part of its technology development strategy.

"The only thing they are going to rectify is the domestic buildout of their infrastructure," she said. "I think they still will push for more exports of advanced manufactured goods such as these railway systems."



Merced Sun-Star

Environmental report released for Merced-to-Fresno route of high-speed rail…From reports

SACRAMENTO – The California High-Speed Rail Authority released on Tuesday the draft environmental impact report for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project.

"These reports – the first environmental documents for true high-speed rail in the nation – represent a major milestone for California and for bringing high-speed rail to the United States, said Thomas Umberg, chairman of the agency's board of directors, in a press release. "We are leading the nation's high-speed rail vision and remain on track to break ground next year." The trains will be able to take passengers from Los Angeles with San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, according to the release.

The EIR addresses the potential environmental concerns associated with the construction and operation of the 65-mile Merced-to-Fresno section of the project. Mitigation measures that would reduce those impacts are also detailed in the documents.

View the documents here:

Merced homeless shelter would relocate because of high-speed rail

D Street shelter opened in 2008 at cost of $1.7 million… AMEERA BUTT

Some nonprofits and properties could have to change their locations if high-speed rail comes to Merced.

In the draft environmental report and statement released Tuesday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project, the D Street Shelter, at 15th and D streets, would be acquired by the authority under all three of the high-speed train's optional routes through Merced. Those three route options are the Union Pacific Railroad-Highway 99 corridor, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe corridor and a hybrid version of the two corridors.

The Merced Lao Family Community, Merced Senior Center, McCombs Youth Center and Merced Mobile Estates in the Franklin-Beachwood area could be displaced from areas between a proposed heavy maintenance facility, which would be built at Castle Commerce Center, and the downtown Merced station.

The proposed Castle facility would perform maintenance, inspection and train storage. However, Castle Commerce Center is one of 10 possible heavy maintenance facilities being considered by the authority in the Central Valley. Whether those nonprofits and property will be affected depends on what heavy maintenance facility site is selected, once the final route is chosen, said Rachel Wall, spokesperson for the authority.

Property acquisition is one of several issues raised in documents highlighting the potential environmental impacts associated with the construction, operation and maintenance of the 65-mile Merced-to-Fresno section of the proposed project.

Wall said property acquisition refers to buying property needed for the right of way.

The draft EIR covers the widest possible footprint of the project — from the initial impacts of construction to building the whole project, according to Wall.

The authority will work with local jurisdictions and the homeless shelter to analyze suitable sites and compensation to relocate, Wall said. She added that the authority will accept guidance from the shelter about where it could relocate, if necessary.

As for the nonprofits, the rail authority would facilitate construction of new sites before any demolition of the existing structures, according to authority documents. A possible mitigation effort for Merced Mobile Estates could be locating suitable replacement housing for displaced residents, according to the documents.

D Street Shelter

The $1.7 million D Street shelter opened its doors to the homeless in May 2008. Brenda Callahan-Johnson, executive director of Merced Community Action Agency, which operates the facility, said they had a heads-up about three or four months ago that part of the property would be used, but not the entire property.

"We're not picky about where we are. We're easy to work with and we know that this is a really important thing for the community. I'm sure we can come to a meeting of the minds as to how this transition could work and how the homeless won't be displaced," said Callahan-Johnson. Last year, the shelter helped more than 500 homeless people. Offering 62 beds in an 8,000-square-foot building, it sits on a little more than two acres. Not all of that acreage is used, she said.

If the rail project proceeds, it means a chance to build a better facility, said Mike Conway, city spokesperson.

Senior, youth centers

There hasn't been any discussion on where the centers might be relocated "because these are lines on a map, and until the high-speed rail authority has the go-ahead to start buying properties, we are still a few years away from looking at where we are relocating people," Conway continued.

"It's not going to mean we're not going to have a senior center or Boys & Girls Club of Merced County — it just means they won't be located there," he said. "The draft EIR is intended to assure people that it's not going to level a place and leave people without a senior center or homeless shelter."

The final EIR and statement should be released early next year.

The public can make comments on the draft documents through Sept. 28. There will be a public meeting Sept. 14 at the Merced Senior Center, 755 W. 15th St., and a joint meeting Sept. 20 at the Fresno Convention Center, 848 M St.


Manteca Bulletin

Merced to Bakersfield line doubles to $13.9B…Bulletin staff and AP reports

A movement is afoot to have voters rescind the $9 billion bond they authorized in 2008.
State Senator Doug La Malfa, R-Willows, is preparing legislation seeking a reconsideration vote on the June 2012 statewide ballot after a report issued Tuesday showed the cost of the first rail segment is expected to soar from $7.1 billion to $13.9 billion.
Another state senator - Democrat Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach - believes the state should reconsider returning the $3.5 billion that the federal government has committed to the high speed rail until a clearer picture is provided on exactly how the overall 800-mile system will be financed.
The first segment of 178 miles of track from Merced to Bakersfield is targeted to break ground in September 2012. The California High Speed Rail Authority went with the segment extensively criticized as “the train to nowhere” in order to meet a federal deadline for starting work. The valley segment is considered less problematic than routes through heavily populated areas.
The 2008 bond also makes establishing a high speed rail line along the Altamont Commuter Express corridor from Stockton to San Jose eligible for funding as well.
A high speed rail version of the ACE service on new tracks across the Altamont Pass will allow speeds up to 150 miles per hour compared to conventional trains that move at times as slow as 10 mph on the windy route plus have to deal with freight traffic.
The commute is now about two hours and 10 minutes from Lathrop/Manteca to San Jose. It is a time comparable with driving at the worst part of the commute. The faster speed possible over the Altamont would reduce the time to 55 minutes even with running at much slower speeds than 150 mph through the populated areas on both sides of the Altamont Pass.
A high speed rail stop for ACE rail is envisioned in Lathrop. A stop is also proposed in Manteca should the ACE high speed line be extended into Modesto.
In addition, two of the three options to take high speed rail north of Merced to Sacramento pass through Manteca.
Environmental reports released Tuesday show the first segment of the line in the Central Valley will cost between $10 billion and $13.9 billion, far more than the 2009 estimate of $7.1 billion.
Rail authority officials say the 2009 estimates were made before detailed engineering work and feedback from communities along the proposed route.
Up to $3.8 billion of the increased cost is associated with elevating the tracks for as much as 42 miles.
Planners anticipated the higher costs as more information about land acquisition and other details related to actual construction became known, said Roelof van Ark, the rail authority’s chief executive.
“We’ve had cost increases, but I believe the costs are now realistic and fair,” he said.
He said delays will lead to escalating costs. Construction of the first stretch of tracks is scheduled to begin by September 2012.
Van Ark said that estimate of $43 billion to build an 800-mile system also is sure to grow.
The rising costs and concerns that the federal government will focus on austerity measures and shut off money for high-speed rail projects have left lawmakers and others questioning whether California can afford the project.
Supporters of the rail project, the nation’s most ambitious, said the private sector will be a significant source of funding and that the money will start flowing once work begins.


Contra Costa Times

High-speed rail price tag soars again, this time on pace to surpass $60 billion…Mike Rosenberg

For the second time since voters approved California's massive bullet train project, the state on Tuesday raised the total price tag for the first stretch by several billion dollars -- and now the cost for the entire rail line is on pace to skyrocket to an eye-popping $60 billion to $80 billion or even more.

The latest estimates put the cash-strapped state even further behind in bankrolling its biggest, and one of its most polarizing, public works plans ever, as California struggles to secure funds from shy investors and broke governments. Still, project officials are ramping up to spend billions of dollars to break ground on the rail line in the Central Valley next year and hope to find the rest of the money to pay for the system later. It's a plan state leaders look increasingly likely to veto.

"It could be well into $60 billion, and who knows where it ends. This is really very serious and needs to stop in its tracks," said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chairman of the Senate committee overseeing the project. "We can't just be acting as if someone's out there giving us wheelbarrows full of money, and it's just coming. This is not the way we should be operating."

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's new cost estimates released Tuesday show the initial stretch of construction between Merced and Bakersfield will cost $10 billion to $13.9 billion depending on how it's built. Project planners had previously pegged the section at $6.8 billion.

If the cost of the entire project balloons at the same pace as the Central Valley section, the San Francisco-to-Anaheim railroad would cost from $63 billion to $87 billion, similar to what independent analysts have been predicting. And those figures do not include inflation, which could push the final cost toward a staggering $100 billion.

When California voters approved the project in 2008, the state said it would cost $33 billion, but it soared to $43 billion a year later -- already making it the single largest public works project in the nation. Even now, the state only has about one-fourth of the money needed to fund the entire rail line and no clear plan on how to secure the rest.

"It leaves what looks like a potential tremendous burden on the California taxpayer," said Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, whose Peninsula district has led the chorus of boos for the project. "We can't double our debt obligations for the high-speed rail system. That would all be done at the expense of education, and health and human services, things that people (need)."

The updated cost of the entire railroad, which will run along the Caltrain tracks in the Bay Area, won't be released until October. Planners will only say for now that the entire project will get more expensive.

Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall attributed the spiraling costs to more bridges and other structures called for in newly detailed engineering plans. The authority has also refined the cost of buying property along the way.

So with the rest of the project undergoing similar engineering analysis, what's to stop the cost of the entire railroad from soaring at the same rate?

"I think that speculation will occur between now and October, but it'd be premature to make those speculations without looking at all the variables," Wall said. "Infrastructure costing is very complex."

Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, tore through the rail authority's detailed engineering figures months ago and predicted the cost increase almost perfectly. The independent group, which has been following the project closely, expects the final tab to climb tens of billions of dollars once the detailed engineering is done, echoing projections from the state's Legislative Analyst's Office and the Legislature's transportation experts.

"Whether its ridership numbers, cost estimates, what have you, every time (the rail authority) comes up with a new number, they say now it's going to be a credible number," Alexis said. "It's getting a bit old. We're quite frankly quite disturbed that they wouldn't let anyone else in on the joke."

In coming months and perhaps into next year, the Legislature will consider a bill to send the project back to voters because of the continuous changes. Republicans in Sacramento and Washington have been pushing to kill the project for the past year, but now a growing number of state Democrats do not want the plan to move forward without major changes.

Gov. Jerry Brown's office declined to comment Tuesday. But those who have talked to Brown -- once an ardent supporter of the plan -- say he is now torn on the project as he struggles to balance California's finances.

California has less than $13 billion in state bonds and federal grants for the project, and critics doubt the state will raise enough money even if the project's price tag stays the same.

The state also faces lawsuits from Peninsula and Southern California towns to block the project, while Kings County in the Central Valley is so fed up that it has asked federal officials to intervene.

The rail authority will spend more than $6 billion to start building near Fresno by September 2012. If all goes to plan, the full 520-mile rail line would be up and running by 2020.

"(Tuesday's cost hike) doesn't take the wind out of my sails because I'm looking to the next generation and beyond," said Quentin Kopp, the former longtime chairman of the rail authority's board. "It, of course, enables critics to denounce the project again. Certainly it bothers me. It alarms me."

Hanford Sentinel

High-speed rail report released, gets mixed reviews…Seth Nidever

The California High-Speed Rail Authority released a massive environmental impact report Tuesday for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment, bringing criticism from vocal Kings County residents who say the report is inadequate.

“The Authority has mismanaged this project and treated people as if they were commodities,” said Aaron Fukuda, a Hanford resident and co-chairman of the group Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability.

The Authority argues in the document that a high-speed rail system connecting the Bay Area to Los Angeles through Kings County will bring thousands of jobs and be more efficient than building additional freeways.

Andrew Picard, the leader of another local group called Citizens Who Support High Speed Rail in the Central Valley, praised the environmental document.

“Reading it just makes me more excited at the possibility of Hanford and Kings County receiving all the economic benefits this is going to bring,” Picard said. “I truly believe that high-speed rail is the best improvement plan we have for Kings County and California.”

But critics say there is a lack of evidence to support those claims. They also said the project lacks a credible business plan and suffers from low-ball cost estimates.

“They don’t even have their house in order with regard to the overall project,” Fukuda said. “They didn’t even put the cart before the horse. They put the whole trip before the horse.”

Cost estimates in the report for the Central Valley segment have soared by billions of dollars, according to the Associated Press. The initial estimate for Merced-to-Bakersfield was $7.1 billion. The projected cost has now skyrocketed to anywhere from $10 billion to $13.9 billion.

Critics also say the EIR does not adequately study alternative routes along Highway 99 or Interstate 5. The document lists six alternatives that are slight variations on a basic alignment that runs along the BNSF railroad tracks that run north-south through Hanford.

Because of opposition from Hanford officials who didn’t want the alignment going through town, Authority officials decided to run the tracks around Hanford to the east, cutting through farmland and dairies, angering growers and dairy operators who say it would ruin their operations.

But locals officials and others want a side-by-side comparison of the BNSF corridor with the pros and cons of proposed Interstate 5 and Highway 99 alignments, something the EIR doesn’t appear to provide. Authority officials say they abandoned those possible alignments in 2005 as being unworkable and having potentially worse impacts than the current route proposal.

“Our argument is, if you read the 2005 documents, they did not give a detailed project-level analysis,” said Diana Peck, program director at the Kings County Farm Bureau, which is trying to get the Authority to reconsider its route. “It’s too vague to make a scientific decision.”

County officials were disappointed by the release of the EIR on Tuesday. Last week, Kings County supervisors sent a blistering 21-page letter to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo asking him to force the Authority to delay the EIR release to fully reconsider a Highway 99 alignment.

The county has gotten no response from Szabo, said Larry Spikes, Kings County administrative officer.

“We’re going to get together and talk about why the Federal Railroad Administration hasn’t done anything yet,” Spikes said. “We have to follow up. Apparently, the letter didn’t get their attention to stop the EIR, because it has been released.”

Legal action is likely, as county officials try to stop the project as it plows ahead toward a late-2012 construction start in the Central Valley. Fukuda’s group is planning to attack the EIR on multiple grounds, including inadequate analysis of alternatives and negative impacts to agricultural land, he said.

Want to comment or see the report?

The public comment period for the EIR runs until Sept. 28. Public meetings are scheduled for Aug. 25 in Corcoran and Sept. 21 in Hanford. After that, the Authority could certify a final EIR, anticipated for release in early 2012. For more information and to see the full report, go to

Bakersfield Californian

Environmental reviews detail bullet train impacts…FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS. Californian staff writer John Cox and Tim Sheehan of The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

The first two stretches of California's proposed high-speed train system would displace hundreds of Central Valley homes and businesses, affect thousands of acres of farmland and cost $3 billion to $7 billion more to build than originally anticipated, according to draft environmental reviews released Tuesday.

Of particular import to the local economy, the reports contain an early assessment of Kern County's bids for a lucrative train maintenance facility that would be part of the project. They suggest that two of three proposed sites in Shafter and Wasco may pose significantly greater farmland and noise disruption than competing proposals.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's long-anticipated release of the reports, about six months behind schedule, kicks off a public comment period that runs through Sept. 28. Over the next month and a half, the authority and its consultants working in the Valley will hold a series of workshops and public hearings where local officials, residents and business owners can learn more about the project or vent their concerns.

The highly contentious project, criticized for everything from its escalating costs to its sketchy business model, is proposed to connect Anaheim and San Francisco with 220 mph trains by 2020.

The two reports released Tuesday detail how various route options will affect communities, businesses, farms and historic and wildlife resources along the 190-mile stretch from a proposed station in downtown Merced, through downtown Fresno, to a station in downtown Bakersfield. They also spell out the measures the authority needs to take to make up for those effects.

About 375 homes would be displaced and 1,190 residents relocated between Fresno and Bakersfield, the draft review of that segment indicates. It says that about 380 businesses would be displaced and relocated, affecting about 2,680 employees. More than 2,200 acres of important farmland would be affected by the rail line, according to the report.

Local officials working to advance Kern's three maintenance facility proposals said Tuesday that they had not yet had a chance to examine the reports. But they acknowledged that the reviews' treatment of the maintenance facilities will be a major focus on which they expect to file formal comments with the rail authority.

The reports contain no clear comparison of the Valley's 10 maintenance facility proposals. However, Kern's bids stand out in the reviews in at least three measures: conversion of agricultural land to nonagricultural use, noise impact and the handling of hazardous materials near a school.

Building the facility on one of two Shafter sites offered by Paramount Farms would claim 490 acres of agricultural land. That's more than any of the other proposed facilities, and in a few cases far more.

It remains to be seen how important the impact on ag land will be viewed as project officials get closer to choosing among the sites -- a decision that could be several years away. But already farmland impacts has emerged as one of the project's touchiest controversies.

Rob Ball, director of planning for the Kern Council of Governments, said the farmland impact will not necessarily be a deciding factor, though it could increase the cost of building a maintenance facility at that site.

"You've got to remember that, you know, mitigating impacts to ag usually requires compensation of the property owner and identifying some other land elsewhere that additional agriculture can occur," Ball said. He added that the 490 acre estimate "seems high."

A proposed maintenance facility in Wasco stood out in two respects -- noise and hazardous materials near a school. The Fresno-to-Bakersfield review states that there are 327 "sensitive receivers" of train noise. The report called that estimated impact "potentially significant" and noted that the segment's second most sensitive proposed site was Fresno's, with 100 noise receivers.

The Wasco proposal was the only one of five proposed sites south of Fresno listed as requiring the handling of extremely hazardous materials within a quarter mile of a school.


Copies of the environmental reviews can be obtained online at

To file written comments on the proposed Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment, send a letter to:

Fresno to Bakersfield Draft EIR/EIS Comment

California High Speed Rail Authority

770 L St., Suite 800

Sacramento, CA 9581

Or, send an email to:

subject line: Fresno to Bakersfield Draft EIR/EIS comment

Five public hearings on the environmental reviews have been scheduled for next month. The ones focusing on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment are:

* 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 20, Fresno Convention Center, 848 M St., Fresno

* 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 21, Hanford Civic Auditorium, 400 N. Douty St., Hanford

* 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 22, Beale Memorial Library 701 Truxtun Ave., Bakersfield

Additionally, several public workshops on the reviews have been scheduled. Two are to be in Kern County:

* 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 23, Grace Baptist Church, 2550 Jewetta Ave., Bakersfield

* 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 24, Veterans Hall, 1202 Poplar Ave., Wasco

...and on and on it goes; where it ends, nobody knows. But one thing has been made clear to the state of California: this land down here in the San Joaquin Valley isn't owned by homesteaders.-- blj

Fresno Bee

Reports detail high-speed rail's impact on Valley…Tim Sheehan

The first two stretches of California's proposed high-speed train system in the San Joaquin Valley would close dozens of roads, displace hundreds of homes and businesses, affect thousands of acres of farmland, and cost billions more to build than originally anticipated.

But environmental impact reports released Tuesday for the Merced-to-Fresno and Fresno-to-Bakersfield segments say the statewide project would save more than $100 billion in new and expanded freeways and airport construction over the next 25 years, reduce automobile traffic and help improve air quality in the Valley and the state.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's long-awaited release of the reports, about six months behind schedule, kicks off a public-comment period that runs through Sept. 28.

Over the next month and a half, the authority and its consultants will hold workshops and public hearings where local officials, residents and business owners can learn more about the project or voice their complaints or concerns.

The comments will steer the authority toward the selection of a final route from among several options in a final version of the reports, expected in early 2012.

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark said the reports provide the most detail so far about route options, their effects on nearby communities -- and how much the project will cost.

"The information contained in these reports will ensure we can successfully go to bid for the initial construction segment next year," van Ark said Tuesday.

The two reports, amounting to more than 10,000 pages, assess how various route options will affect communities, businesses, farms and historic and wildlife resources along the 190-mile stretch from a proposed station in downtown Merced, through downtown Fresno, to a station in downtown Bakersfield.

They also spell out the measures the authority needs to take to make up for those effects.

Route options

Between Merced and Fresno, two main route options remain in consideration: one along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Highway 99 through Merced, Chowchilla and Madera; and one along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks a few miles east of the cities and the freeway. A third option is a combination of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern routes. The route lengths vary from 74 to 95 miles between downtown Merced and downtown Fresno.

Among the Merced-to-Fresno highlights:

- Engineers say building the line is expected to cost $3.8 billion to $6.9 billion between Merced and Fresno, depending on which route is chosen. This is the first time the authority has produced a breakdown of costs by segment.

- Between 291 and 343 homes would be displaced, forcing the relocation of 900 to 1,100 residents.

- Anywhere from 228 to 323 businesses would be relocated, affecting 6,500 to 8,200 employees.

-Between 1,037 and 1,481 acres of "important farmland" would be lost to the rail alignment. Important farmland is land designated either as prime, of statewide or local importance, or unique.

From downtown Fresno to downtown Bakersfield, only one 114-mile main route is in play, from a proposed downtown station along the Union Pacific tracks near Chinatown to the south end of Fresno, then south along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks into downtown Bakersfield. The route veers from the freight rail tracks in Kings County to bypass Hanford on the east.

In Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, the route includes options for bypasses around the towns of Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter.

Highlights of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield route:

- Cost estimates for construction range from $6.2 billion to $7.2 billion.

- About 375 homes would be displaced and 1,190 residents relocated.

- About 380 businesses would be relocated, affecting about 2,680 employees.

-More than 2,200 acres of important farmland would be affected by the rail line.

Costs and effects

California has about $6.3 billion available to start construction in late 2012 on its first segment, between Fresno and Bakersfield. That includes about $3.3 billion in federal funds and about $3 billion from Proposition 1A, a high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.

Earlier this year, state rail officials estimated that they could build the entire Valley stretch from Merced to Bakersfield, with stations in Merced, Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield, for about $8 billion.

But the projections in the EIRs indicate that the cheapest route options would cost about $10 billion, and could run more than $14 billion.

The latest estimates count a number of costs that were not covered in the authority's earlier projections, said Rachel Wall, the agency's spokeswoman. Those include about $1.1 billion for electrical substations, switching stations and overhead lines to power the trains, as well as cost escalation since 2009, when prior estimates were made.

Wall added that the authority believes its $6.3 billion budget to build the initial section -- from just north of the San Joaquin River in Madera County to near Shafter in Kern County -- remains realistic.

While the rising cost has been a major concern for many people, the project's potential effects on agriculture -- the region's economic mainstay -- have prompted loud and vocal protests, as well.

In Merced, Madera and northern Fresno counties, engineers estimate that the high-speed tracks would take between 1,037 and 1,481 acres of farmland out of production. In southern Fresno County and in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties, the toll on farmland amounts to about 2,200 acres.

While that's only about 0.04% of the more than 7.5 million acres of farm property in the six-county region, it adds up to what federal law considers "substantial adverse effects," and what state environmental law deems "significant" effects, on agriculture in the north Valley.

That includes acreage that would be sliced from farms as the tracks arc across some properties, creating remnant parcels that are separated from the rest of the farming operation and are too small to farm economically.

"They're talking about a half-acre here or a couple of acres there, and those don't seem very significant," said Tim Niswander, agricultural commissioner for Kings County. "But talks about the cumulative effects of a project, and those little pieces add up. What's the effect in the long term?

"I think the public needs to be aware that we're running out of land to produce food on."

Niswander added that no matter whether land is lost to homes, new freeway lanes or high-speed train tracks, "every acre that's taken out of production is an acre that's no longer growing food."

Tuesday's reports propose that the rail authority would try to make up for the conversion of agricultural land by buying an equivalent amount of farm property from willing sellers to protect it from future development.

The authority also plans to create a "farmland consolidation program" to sell those smaller, lopped-off plots to neighboring landowners so that they could still be used for farming.

For larger pieces divided by the tracks, right-of-way agents can work with farmers to develop over- or underpasses to enable livestock or farm equipment to get from one side of the tracks to the other, or compensate owners for the hardships caused by severing the land.

Information workshops are planned on the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield environmental impact reports:

Fairmead: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 23, Galilee Missionary Baptist Church, 22491 Fairmead Blvd.

LeGrand: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 24, LeGrand Legion Hall, 12506 LeGrand Road.

Chowchilla: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 25, Madera County Fairgrounds/Chowchilla Little Theater, 1000 S. 3rd St.

Corcoran: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 25, Technology Center, 1101 Dairy Ave.

Fresno: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 30, Edison High School, 540 E. California Ave.

Hearings are planned in September for the public to comment on the environmental impact reports.


Merced: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 14, Merced Community Senior Center, 755 W. 15th St.

Madera: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 15, Madera City Council Chambers, 205 W. Fourth St.


Hanford: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 21, Hanford Civic Auditorium, 400 N. Douty St.

Bakersfield: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 22, Beale Memorial Library, 701 Truxtun Ave.


Fresno: 3 to 8 p.m. Sept. 20, Fresno Convention Center, 848 M St.


Sacramento Bee

Lawmakers question jump in high-speed rail costs…ADAM WEINTRAUB, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- State lawmakers who have supported California's ambitious high-speed rail project questioned whether the state can afford it Tuesday after a report showed sharply higher cost estimates to build the first segment.

A Democratic lawmaker who has backed the system in the past said the state should consider returning $3.5 billion in federal grants and halting the project unless the California High-Speed Rail Authority lays out a clear path to finance, build and operate the system without leaving the state's taxpayers on the hook for unexpected cost overruns.

"We really need to re-examine what we're spending and what we're going to get for it," said Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who has promoted the concept of high-speed rail but more recently supported legislation to rein in the authority and change the way the project is governed.

Another Democrat, Sen. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, said he feels a growing frustration with the rail planners and the pressure to start construction quickly.

"Getting this right is more important than getting it done quickly," Simitian said.

Lawmakers are focused on October, when the rail authority must present business and financing plans to the Legislature.

Environmental reports released Tuesday show the first segment of the line in the Central Valley will cost between $10 billion and $13.9 billion, far more than the 2009 estimate of $7.1 billion.

Rail authority officials say the 2009 estimates were made before detailed engineering work and feedback from communities along the proposed route.

The reports released Tuesday lay out specific route alternatives for the planned initial section, 178 miles of tracks between Merced and Bakersfield. The cost varies depending on which route is ultimately selected.

For example, up to $3.8 billion of the increased cost is associated with elevating the tracks for as much as 42 miles.

Planners anticipated the higher costs as more information about land acquisition and other details related to actual construction became known, said Roelof van Ark, the rail authority's chief executive.

"We've had cost increases, but I believe the costs are now realistic and fair," he said.

He said delays will lead to escalating costs. Construction of the first stretch of tracks is scheduled to begin by September 2012.

California voters approved $9 billion in bonds in 2008 to start the project, which originally had been expected to cost $43 billion for an 800-mile system linking the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California.

Van Ark said that estimate also is sure to grow.

The rising costs and concerns that the federal government will focus on austerity measures and shut off money for high-speed rail projects have left lawmakers and others questioning whether California can afford the project.

"We have no assurance that there are any additional funds," Lowenthal said. "The Legislature is becoming more critical and is losing confidence."

The decision to start construction in the Central Valley, linking relatively small towns, also has generated criticism that the project could become a high-priced "train to nowhere." In a critical report earlier this year, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's office said the rail line should start near coastal population centers and recommended moving control of the project from the largely independent rail board to the state Department of Transportation.

State Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Willows, said he is preparing legislation that would ask voters to reconsider the project in June 2012. Voters authorized $9 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, although most of those bonds have not yet been sold.

"This thing is well on its way to massive cost overruns," La Malfa said. "The costs are starting to escalate and we need to take a time-out."

Supporters of the rail project, the nation's most ambitious, said the private sector will be a significant source of funding and that the money will start flowing once work begins.

San Francisco Chronicle


Harry Reid to Calif: Don't abandon high-speed rail…Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Staff Writer…8-11-11

San Francisco -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that it would be "short-sighted" to abandon high speed rail ambitions in California, even as Democratic lawmakers here show signs of concern over the multi-billion dollar project.

On Tuesday, several legislators who have championed the project expressed reservations after seeing an environmental report estimating that the first segment of the rail line could cost between $3 billion and $6 billion more than expected.

Speaking on a conference call on clean energy Wednesday, Reid said the rail system would be good for the economy and national security, and that the cost of doing nothing should be considered as well as the price of building the 800-mile system linking the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California.

"Our country is so short sighted - our highways are jammed ... and we are spending so much wasted money hauling people in airplanes for 300 miles or less, which is terribly inefficient," he said. "I am a big, big fan of high speed rail. You have to look at things other than the raw numbers of how much it costs. How much does it save?

"If you could take a train from Sacramento to L.A. to San Diego, that would be wonderful, instead of the inefficient San Francisco to Los Angeles flights that happen every day," he continued. "It would be so short-sighted to walk away from the bonding capacity ... because of costs."

California voters authorized $9 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, and the federal government has given the state $3.5 billion in grant funds. The project will cost more than $40 billion.

The environmental reports released Tuesday concluded that the first segment of the rail line - set to run between Merced and Bakersfield in the Central Valley - will cost at least $10 billion and as much as $13.9 billion, depending on the exact route. In 2009, rail officials estimated the cost of that segment at $7.1 billion; those estimates were made before the High Speed Rail Authority undertook more detailed engineering work, however.


San Francisco Chronicle

Chinese bullet train maker halts some production…JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer. AP researcher Zhao Liang contributed.

BEIJING, China (AP) -- China has frozen approval of new railway projects and halted some bullet train manufacturing, stepping up an overhaul of its controversial high-speed network after a July collision that killed 40 people.

The crash, along with delays on a new Beijing-Shanghai line blamed on equipment failures, have embarrassed the communist government and fueled public anger at a bullet train network that critics say is dangerous and too costly.

The railway minister announced the moratorium on new rail projects Wednesday and promised a nationwide safety inspection. He also announced further speed reductions in the top speed of bullet trains following cuts in April.

"This accident exposed the weaknesses lying in the railway transportation safety and management," said Sheng Guangzu in comments posted on the Cabinet website.

The announcement adds to signs Beijing is scaling back plans that called for expanding the high-speed network to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of track by the end of this year and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) by 2020.

The system is a prestige project for the Communist Party and is meant to showcase China's growing technological prowess. But the July 23 crash made it a target for complaints about the human cost of recklessly fast development.

Meanwhile, a state-owned manufacturer said it will suspend production of its CRH380BL trains used on the Beijing-Shanghai line while it investigates equipment failures.

China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Ltd. gave no details in a statement issued through the Shanghai Stock Exchange. But the official Xinhua News Agency said trains "abnormally stopped" three times due to faulty sensor signals. The newspaper Shanghai Daily cited sources who said there were more than 40 breakdowns since late July but did not say how many involved equipment from the same producer.

There was no indication the production halt was linked to the crash near the southern city of Wenzhou. Authorities blamed that disaster on a lightning strike that caused one train to stall and a sensor failure that allowed a second train to keep moving on the same track and slam into it.

A CNR subsidiary, CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles Co., produced 24 of the planned 96 trains to be used on the Beijing-Shanghai line, Xinhua said. The company statement said plans call for the company to produce 17 more CRH380BL trains this year.

Experts have been sent to examine train sensors provided by a foreign supplier, Xinhua said, citing its deputy general manager, Zhao Minghua.

"The breakdowns make us realize that we must conduct strict checks for suppliers' products," Zhao was quoted as saying.

China has the world's biggest train network, with 56,000 miles (91,000 kilometers) of passenger rail. Trains are overloaded with passengers and cargo, and critics say the money would be better spent expanding cheaper, slower routes.

Critics have expected changes since the bullet train lost its biggest official booster when the former railway minister was dismissed in February amid a corruption investigation.

In the speed cuts announced Wednesday, Sheng said second-tier trains scheduled to run at 155 mph (250 kph) will slow to 125 mph (200 kph).

In April, the top speed of the fastest lines was reduced from 220 mph (350 kph) to 190 mph (300 kph) after Chinese railway researchers warned the planned speeds were dangerously fast and would waste energy.

Ticket sales for high-speed lines linking Shanghai with Beijing and the cities of Nanjing and Hangzhou will be suspended while schedules are reorganized, the Shanghai Railway Bureau said Thursday.

It said the suspension affects tickets for departures starting Tuesday and gave no indication when it would end. An employee who answered the phone at the bureau declined to give more details or his name.

China to Suspend Approvals of New Rail Projects, Radio Says… Zhang Shidong. Editor: Allen Wan

(Updates with speed cut in second paragraph.)

Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) -- China will suspend approvals on new railway projects and conduct safety checks on all current projects after a deadly train crash last month, China National Radio reported today, citing a State Council meeting.

The government will also reduce the speed of some high- speed rail lines that recently started operations, the radio reported, citing a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao.

Two high-speed trains collided in the eastern province of Zhejiang on July 23, killing 40 people. China plans to have a 120,000-kilometer rail network under a 2.8 trillion-yuan ($436.3 million), five-year investment plan ending 2015.

Fresno Bee


Chinese bullet train maker orders recall…JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer

BEIJING A Chinese bullet train manufacturer recalled 54 trains Friday in a new embarrassment for a problem-plagued prestige project following a July crash that killed 40 people.

The recall adds to signs Beijing is scaling back ambitious expansion plans for a high-speed rail network that once enjoyed a level of political prestige comparable to China's manned space program. A moratorium was imposed on new rail projects this week and the railway minister announced a reduction in train speeds.

The recall applies to model CRH380BL trains used on the Beijing-Shanghai line, which has suffered repeated delays blamed on equipment failures, state-owned China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Ltd. said. There was no indication it was linked to the July 23 crash on a separate line in southern China.

Experts will examine sensors that might be faulty or too sensitive and cause trains to stop unnecessarily, said a CNR spokesman, Tan Xiaofeng. He said that might happen if a door is ajar or a passenger violates rules and lights a cigarette in a restroom.

The Beijing-Shanghai line has suffered "frequent quality problems" with components provided by U.S., European and Chinese suppliers, Tan said. He declined to identify the suppliers.

"When problems occur, we don't wish to hide them," he said. "We put life before everything else."

Beijing launched an overhaul of the multibillion-dollar bullet train network after the July crash triggered an avalanche of public complaints about the human cost of recklessly fast development.

The bullet train was meant to showcase China's technological advancement and support possible exports. Chinese companies have sold high-speed rail cars to Malaysia and are working on projects in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The disaster has prompted policymakers to decide China needs to "rectify the excesses" of its system and slow an unsustainably fast expansion, said Ren Xianfang, senior China economist for IHS Global Insight.

She likened its impact to Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, which turned the Japanese public against nuclear power.

"It is quite clear now that stepping on the brake is the only viable policy option," Ren said in a report.

State media have begun reporting on the cost and excesses of the bullet train in a sign official support for the system is eroding.

On Friday, state broadcaster China Central Television showed scenes of an apartment complex in the eastern province of Anhui over which a bullet train viaduct was built on huge concrete pillars. Residents were shown complaining about the noise of passing trains and damage to property values.

CNR announced a temporary halt to production of CRH380BL trains this week.

The Xinhua News Agency said this week trains "abnormally stopped" three times due to faulty sensors. The newspaper Shanghai Daily said there were more than 40 breakdowns since late July but did not say how many involved CNR trains.

Even before the July crash, the bullet train was a target of critics who said it was dangerously fast and too expensive for a society where the poor majority need more low-cost transportation, not record-setting speeds.

China has the world's biggest train network, with 56,000 miles (91,000 kilometers) of passenger rail. But trains are overloaded with passengers and cargo, and critics say the money would be better spent expanding slower routes.

Critics have expected changes since the bullet train lost its biggest official booster when the former railway minister was dismissed in February amid a graft probe.

China has 13 high-speed railways in operation in the country, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned.

Earlier plans called for expanding the network to 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of track by 2020. Authorities have announced no changes but the railway ministry says it is spending less than planned this year on the high-speed system.

Authorities blamed the July crash on a lightning strike that caused one train to stall and a sensor failure that allowed a second train to keep moving on the same track and slam into it. That caused train cars to fall from a viaduct near the southern city of Wenzhou.

Sacramento Bee

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