Using blistering language, the Kings County Board of Supervisors released a 21-page letter Tuesday asking Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo to force the California High-Speed Rail Authority to delay its draft environmental impact report to fully reconsider an alignment along Highway 99.
The draft EIR is scheduled to be released Aug. 12 for a 45-day public comment period that will end Sept. 28.
Citing federal law, the letter argues that the authority’s decision to build its first segment through Kings County farmland next year was based on a “pre-determined outcome” rather than through cooperation with local government agencies.
“Clearly, the refusal to coordinate and comply with the law has become the policy of the Authority, not the exception,” the letter states.
The letter, along with binders full of supporting documents, was scheduled to go by overnight service to Szabo and several others, including Authority Chairman Thomas Umberg, Assemblyman David Valadao, Rep. Jim Costa and the mayors of Hanford, Lemoore, Corcoran, Avenal, Visalia and Tulare.
“There’s been a huge effort to put the letter together,” said Colleen Carlson, Kings County counsel. “[People] are really concerned about what it will do to the community and the economy. They really want people to pay attention to the problem and look at other possibilities that may resolve that problem.”
The letter follows two meetings earlier this year in which county officials attempted to get full explanations from authority officials about why they selected the current route over alternatives. Jeff Abercrombie, the authority’s program manager for the Central Valley area, told officials that the authority would address all their questions in the draft EIR.
But the rail authority is required to coordinate decisions with local officials before the draft EIR is released, the letter states. It also accuses the Authority of failing to take adequate steps to preserve ag land and ignoring county land use planning efforts and guidelines.
“To avoid litigation and lengthy delays, we demand that you and your agent, the High-Speed Rail Authority ... develop Highway 99 through western Visalia as a ‘reasonable alternative’ to resolve the conflicts with our county,” the letter concludes, asking that Szabo meet with the board on Aug. 30 and commit the Federal Railroad Administration to a coordination process with the county.
The Authority ruled out a Highway 99 route because it would have greater impacts on towns such as Selma and Fowler that are on Highway 99, said Rachel Wall, an authority spokeswoman.
“That [alignment] has been studied,” Wall said. “That has been studied repeatedly.”
The Authority has also ruled out alignments along Interstate 5 as well as another route that would follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad through Hanford. Local farmers say any of those three abandoned alternatives would be better than the current one, which slices through 28 miles of Kings County farmland, much of it on a curve that cuts diagonally through the middle of fertile parcels of land.
Construction of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment is set to begin next year. The authority is already asking local businesses in the region to propose contracts for services.
Carlson left open the possibility of a lawsuit against the authority if the letter’s demands are ignored.
Meanwhile, Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability, a Kings County group led by Aaron Fukuda and Frank Oliveira, is also gearing up for a legal battle. The organization supports the county’s approach, but it has also hired two Bay Area legal experts to prepare responses to the draft EIR during the public comment period.
The citizens group intends to file suit if the Authority approves a final EIR, which is anticipated to happen in February or March of next year.
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or snidever@HanfordSentinel.com.