California bullet train board approves environmental studies

State bullet train officials Thursday approved the environmental impact studies for an initial section of high-speed track to be built from Merced to Fresno, a decision that sets the stage for possible legal challenges from powerful Central Valley farming interests.

Certification of the final state and federal environmental reports is a critical step before the California High-Speed Rail Authority can begin to secure government permits and award construction contracts for the first phase of the $68-billion project that would link Los Angeles and San Francisco with 200 mph trains.

“Today we reached a major milestone toward making high-speed rail a reality,” said Dan Richard, chairman of the agency’s board of directors, which met in Fresno.

Before the environmental analysis was approved, representatives of farming interests in Madera and Merced counties criticized the reports as inadequate and raised the possibility of lawsuits, actions that could delay the project as rail officials hustle to begin construction later this year.

“We want to explore all political and legal avenues,” said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. “The plan would disrupt this bedrock of food production. If the board moves to certify this. . . it will sabotage the entire [rail] project.”

One calf ranch owner complained to the board that the environmental review incorrectly stated that he ran a “poultry operation.” The attorney for a group of Madera farmers described the analysis as “fatally defective,” while the owner of a historic landmark, Forestieri Underground Gardens in Fresno, complained that the rail alignment passes only five feet from his entrance.

The Merced to Fresno section, which rail officials call the backbone of the bullet train system, runs about 65 miles next to State Route 99 and parts of the rights-of-way for the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. Stations in downtown Fresno and Merced are planned.

Federal Railroad Administration officials will now consider whether to approve the project and issue a record of decision as required by the National Environmental Quality Act. The federal review is scheduled to be completed in June.