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Rail authority says revised report won’t slow construction

California High-Speed Rail Authority

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says it’s still on track to start construction in early 2013 on the first stretch of its proposed line in the Fresno area – even though it essentially reset a major portion of its approval process.

A revised draft environmental report issued Monday for the authority’s Fresno-to-Bakersfield section will endure two months of public comment and hearings. After that, consultants will prepare responses and write a final version, which is not likely to be certified by the authority’s board until at least January.

Agency spokeswoman Lisa Marie Burcar said the authority anticipates getting bids from would-be contractors in September, and hopes to pick the winning bid and award a contract in late 2012 for its first construction package – from southern Madera County to American Avenue south of Fresno.

Burcar said that because the agency approved its Merced-to-Fresno environmental documents in May, construction could begin north of downtown Fresno soon after a contract is awarded. Until the authority certifies the Fresno-Bakersfield stretch, however, the contractor won’t be able to do any work south of downtown.

The first construction package is expected to be worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion. The project includes building 12 street overcrossings or underpasses, two elevated viaducts, a tunnel and a bridge across the San Joaquin River. Laying the tracks will be done later under a separate contract.

The high-speed line will follow the BNSF Railway freight tracks east of Madera before veering toward the Union Pacific Railroad line and Highway 99 just north of the San Joaquin River. Across the river and through Fresno, the tracks generally will follow the UP tracks through downtown, before curving south to rejoin the BNSF corridor south of the city.

Monday’s revised Fresno-Bakersfield draft environmental impact report represents the agency’s second swing at the process.

The first version was released in August 2011 but recalled two months later for retooling, including a new bypass alternative west of Hanford in Kings County and a more thorough evaluation of the train’s effects on agriculture, homes and businesses.

The authority continues to face pressure to meet a planning and development schedule in the San Joaquin Valley that is ambitious under the best of circumstances.

When the Obama administration awarded about $3 billion in stimulus and transportation funds to California to begin construction in the Valley, the strings included starting construction by September 2012 and completing the work by September 2017.

In early 2011, September 2012 became a target not for starting construction, but for awarding contracts. That date now seems certain to pass with no contracts in place.

The fall of 2017 continues to loom as an unchanging deadline for completing $6 billion in construction on the Valley portion of the line to Bakersfield.

The reporter can be reached at 559-441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter. This story resulted from a partnership among California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, U-T San Diego, KQED, the Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and The Modesto Bee.

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