CHSRA Considers At-Grade Tracks in Fresno
Some potentially major news out of Fresno this weekend, as Tim Sheehan of the Fresno Bee reports that the California High Speed Rail Authority is considering abandoning the 60-foot high, 6 to 8 miles long viaduct for the HSR tracks and instead building at-grade:
Now, in a surprise to many observers, engineers are evaluating where tracks can be built at ground level instead as a way to save money.
The about-face by the California High-Speed Rail Authority comes amid rising concerns over the cost of the train system and fears about the noise and aesthetics of overhead tracks in communities. The new strategy, called “value engineering,” was publicly acknowledged this month by the rail authority’s CEO, Roelof van Ark.
I’m not sure why it’s a “surprise” necessarily, but this should help put to rest some of the claims by HSR critics and opponents that the Authority doesn’t listen well to locals or that it’s captive to the concrete-industrial complex. For about two years now the Fresno viaduct has been a big part of the plans for building HSR in the Valley. But the Authority is clearly paying attention to concerns raised by locals, as they have in many other parts of California. Fresno leaders worked with the Authority instead of threatening to sue or kill the project, and now they may get what they want:
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is glad to see that ground-level tracks are back on the table.
“We’re positive about the approach [the authority] is taking,” said Swearengin, who has been supportive of high-speed rail — and the economic spark she says it could provide for the city. “The city is strong in its push for design alternatives that work for the city and its residents.”
It puts the lie to the disingenuous arguments we keep hearing from HSR opponents in places like the Peninsula, who claim that their anti-rail resolutions and lawsuits are their only option for advocating their preferred design.
So what exactly is the Authority considering?
“What we’re looking at now on those three elevated options is where we can make them at-grade,” said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the high-speed rail authority. “We’re looking at design solutions to reduce the cost without diminishing performance.”
That’s not the clearest explanation, and this would almost certainly involve closing some roads and building overpasses over others. But the cost could be significantly cheaper than the proposed viaduct.
The details matter, not just to the Authority and to Fresno but to the rest of the state, who expect a fast bullet train to be built affordably. An at-grade solution could be workable, but it will require a secure corridor that enables trains to travel at the necessary speeds, not slowed by surrounding conditions.
This should be a cheaper option, and it would follow the existing corridor. There are some nearby uses to consider, including a park, and some neighbors whose attitudes toward the project are, well, strange:
Two doors down, Jim Keller bought his home in 2007. If the rail authority opts to build its tracks on the east side of the Union Pacific line, Keller fears that officials won’t be willing to make up for what he invested near the height of the housing bubble or the improvements he’s made to the home since.
Keller has absolutely no right to expect that the Authority – or any government agency – will make up that lost investment. It’s nobody’s fault but his own that he bought at the height of a bubble. A lot of Californians falsely believed during the bubble that housing prices would always rise, but real estate is a financial asset whose value can rise or fall at any time. It is totally unreasonable for ANY homeowner to expect government to make them whole. Government agencies are mandated to pay only fair market value, which is reasonable. If that means someone like Keller sells at a loss, well, that’s nobody’s fault but his own.
We’ll await the details of the Authority’s new ideas on tracks through Fresno. It sounds like something worth exploring. And the search for cost efficiencies is welcome – as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the service itself. Because then it’s not efficient at all, and would cost more money in the long-term than it saves.