Wednesday, August 13, 2014

STB backs CHSRA second segment

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The Surface Transportation Board has ruled that the California High-Speed Rail Authority "is authorized to construct a 114-mile high-speed passenger rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield, Cal., subject to environmental mitigation conditions," thus giving the state's high speed rail effort more momentum.

In a 56-page decision, FD_35724_1, issued Aug. 12, 2014, STB noted the route involved "is the second segment of the planned HST System to come before the Board." STB, in a 2-to-1 vote, last year approved the first segment of the CHSRA plan, running roughly north of Fresno to Merced, Calif., and making Fresno the approximate midpoint of the developing HSR route in the state's Central Valley.

Last week a California appeals court ruled that CHSRA could proceed with up to $8 billion in state bond sales for the proposed $68 billion system, turning aside efforts to thwart such funding.

STB's decision is noteworthy in part since it decided in April 2013 "that it had jurisdiction" over the proposed system, and it also "requested cooperating agency status for the remaining project-level EISs," or Environmental Impact Statements, "which FRA granted in August 2013."

"In this decision, we accept {STB's Office of Environmental Assessment]'s recommendation to adopt the Final EIS, which we find took a "hard look" at the potential environmental impact of the project, selected an environmentally preferred route from a list of alternatives, and recommended extensive environmental conditions to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the project's potential environmental impact," STB said.

"After weighing the entire record on both the transportation merits and the environmental issues, the Board grants the Authority's petition for exemption5 subject to various environmental mitigation conditions, including: (1) construction of the route designated by FRA as environmentally preferable, (2) compliance with the mitigation imposed by FRA in its ROD, and (3) compliance with three additional environmental conditions recommended by OEA," STB added.

STB's decision strongly suggests the potential utility of the route segment approved even if no additions HSR segments are built. "Fresno and Bakersfield are logical termini for the Line," STB's decision said.

"As noted in the Final EIS, they are two of the largest cities in the San Joaquin Valley, thus providing potential ridership for the Line; moreover, both cities are surrounded by metropolitan areas and are economic hubs within the region. As with the Merced-to-Fresno Section, transportation benefits would be realized even if the Line is constructed and subsequent sections of the HST System are never built," STB said.