High-Speed Rail moving forward in Tulare County

Friday, January 15, 2016 

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There are plenty of politicians and others in the Valley who object to California’s high-speed rail projects — but it’s here and more is on the way.

The first 17-mile portion of construction began in Madera County in June, and last week the Tuolumne Street Bridge near downtown Fresno was closed, with plans to demolish it and replace it over the coming year with a taller bridge so high-speed trains can eventually travel under it.

Three more sections of track and commuter stations are planned in the “Fresno-Bakersfield” phases of the project, which will extend south through Fresno County, into Kings County, cutting through the southwest corner to Tulare County and ending in Kern County near Shafter.

Plans are to eventually connect this 126-mile South Central Valley portion of the planned 520-mile-long high-speed rail line to tracks that will extend to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

If all goes to plan, the trains would be running the full route by sometime in 2029 at speeds as high as 200 mph, allowing tourists and commuters to travel between Southern California and the Bay Area in under three hours. One stop in between would include a station in Hanford.

Despite numerous efforts to stop the rail line, Tulare County officials have been readying themselves for the $68 billion project.

Planning includes working with California High-Speed Rail Authority engineers and planners to make changes to the train’s 23-mile route through Tulare County, which has included adding construction of an overpass and underpass for vehicles heading east and west in the Alpaugh and Allensworth areas.

The new rail line would extend from Corcoran into Tulare County, where it would run mostly alongside Highway 43 before separating at Avenue 64 and going south into Kern County.

As part of the project, Tulare County officials got the rail authority to agree to pay more than $12.6 million to demolish and rebuild more than a dozen miles of roads near the tracks to accommodate additional traffic redirected onto them once the rail line is built, including trucks from dairies and a major hog farm in the area.

County supervisors approved on a series of agreements in November with the High-Speed Rail Authority to go forward with construction here with the agreed-upon modifications.

The authority also will cover most of the county’s costs for planning and other work related to the rail line development –– more than $300,000.

Some of the road-improvement projects could begin in the spring, unless heavy storms continue into the next season and delay them, said Eric Coyne, Tulare County’s tourism commissioner.

Still, within about a month, county Resource Management Agency officials plan to conduct a community outreach, going door-to-door to homes in and around Alpaugh and Allensworth to let people know about where the road construction will be done and when.

“We don’t want people waking up, going outside to jackhammers going” without any warning, Coyne said.

The schedule is still being determined by RMA staff, added Benjamin Ruiz Jr., who last week was named the agency’s acting director.

He noted that many of the roads to be worked on are more than 50 years old and essentially were asphalt laid on the ground, without the ground being dug out under it to create more stable foundations. The work being funded by the authority will be built to higher, industrial-grade standards.

Plans are to get most of the road work done before the end of this year.

But the road repair schedule doesn’t factor in when the High-Speed Rail Authority plans to begin construction on the rail line in Tulare County, which will included elevated tracks over two roads, three vehicle overpasses and one underpass and the closure of Avenue 112.

Ruiz, a civil engineer by trade who spearheaded the county’s work with the rail authority, said that in the original proposed route, the overpass and underpass near Allensworth and Alpaugh area didn’t exist, and drivers would have had to travel at least two miles north or five miles south into Kern County to get around the high-speed rail tracks.

In addition, that route would have gone through a portion of the PFFJ, LLC. hog farm — a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Co., supplying meat for Farmer John pork products manufactured in Southern California — and its feed lot, which would have had to shut down, Ruiz said.

County supervisors last year directed RMA and the authority to work with businesses in the southwest section of the county affected by the rail plans. After numerous meetings, changes were made to slightly alter the train tracks away from PFFJ’s properties and to improve east-west traffic flow.

Toni Tinocio, a spokeswoman for the High-Speed Rail Authority, said plans originally were to begin construction and demolition in 2015 for the combined second and third phases of the Central Valley portion of the project — extending 65 miles between American Avenue in Fresno County to a mile north of the Tulare-Kern County Line, just below Allensworth.

“We haven’t finalized any construction schedule now,” she said. “We are still in negotiations with many property owners” over obtaining rights of way for the rail line and work is being done to determine where to relocate utilities in the track’s path and other matters.

The first Central Valley phase of the project, — Construction Package 1 — has a contracted budget of $985.14 million.

Last week, the authority voted to award a $1.2 billion contract to build Construction Package 2 and 3 — which includes all but a mile of the rail line going through Tulare County — well below the agency’s $1.5-$2 billion estimated cost for that section.

No contract has been awarded yet to build Construction Package 4, and officials with the authority couldn’t say earlier this week how much the 23 miles of track going through Tulare County may cost