A published monthly report by URS Corp consultants who advise the California High Speed Rail Authority on planning and engineering services to construct the rail line offer a glimpse inside of what is the biggest public works project in California history.
The short version is that planning the bullet train route is complicated and chaotic. And people change their mind.
The consultants send out this monthly progress report on their work laying out their successes and challenges and sometimes making news.
Case in point is their latest report published August 14 covering July activities. The news here is it appears to suggest that the Authority has decided to plan for a route through Kings County to the east of Hanford (the original plan) rather than West of Hanford as they announced this Spring.
URS and its partners are responsible for defining the detailed design and construction requirements as well as identifying the agricultural, residential, industrial and recreational areas along the route to determine which alignments will have the least environmental impact. They are coordinating reports with the Federal Railroad Administration who have set up milestones for tasks to be accomplished in a timely way.
The URS report August 14 included this short paragraph.
Referring to Authority staff, URS writes “In July 2013, further verbal direction was given to replace the Hanford West Bypass 2 Below-Grade Alternative with the Hanford East Alternative as part of the single PA, and to explore options for adjusting that alignment to avoid or reduce impacts on the Baker Commodities facility.”
PA is the preferred alternative.
That’s a far cry from last April when the Authority staff recommended a West of Hanford route.The route they wanted would be below-grade, meaning it will run under main streets and not require new overpasses. It would run mostly along a line just east of 13th Avenue before swinging southeast to join the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad track south of Hanford.
So what happened between April and July?
Staff of the California High Speed Rail Authority announced their preference for a West-of-Hanford rail alignment and station just east of 13th Ave,north of 198 earlier this Spring.The rail alignment and station would be located below grade says the staff report in a 3 mile, 40-foot-deep trench to keep noise down as the trains speed through this populated part of the county near Armona.
But a key issue that appears to have escaped the attention of the engineers and planners could literally sink the idea.
Kings County just west of 13th and spanning a large swath of the county has a high impermeable clay layer – close to the surface – pooling groundwater a mere 10 to 15 feet below ground level says Kings County Water District general manager Don Mills.
“It’s an anomaly in this area.” Across the railroad tracks toward Hanford ground water is at 100 feet or more he says.
Asked if the CHSRA representatives knew about the shallow water, Mills noted that “I don’t know why they did not check with us or any local agency I know of.”
The water district has a groundwater map that shows groundwater depth measurements made last fall showing levels 160 to 200 feet in Hanford and east of Hanford as well – but a sudden raised clay layer generally west of the BNSF tracks at 198.The shallow water pool runs north and south from Flint Ave to Kansas,some 11 miles and is around 4 miles wide to the east and west – spanning 13th to 17th Ave. Altogether this sprawling, raised clay layer is 40 to 50 square miles.
Kings County civl engineer John Zumwalt says the perched water in this area is well known locally as irrigation water hits the clay layer and stays there.
Zunwalt says where the two levels meet near 13 Ave there is sudden drop off that can create almost a waterfall effect as the groundwater rushes to the lower level.
No mention of the shallow water levels along the potential rail corridor is made in the CHSRA reports reviewed by this reporter until June in a URS report.The draft EIR refers to the average groundwater levels in the Hanford area as 60 ft or more and displays a chart of depth to groundwater that lists Hanford at 100 to 120 ft.
Mills and Zumwalt each caution that they are not engineers and assume one could build a water tight tunnel to run the train in but offer the that the higher water levels could have complicating implications and unanticipated costs.
Initially the West route was touted as $800 million less expensive but that may not have included knowledge of the water issue.
The West alternative was also said to impact fewer dairies.Case in point is the Baker Commodity facility near Hwy 43 on the East of Hanford alignment.
The URS staff report indicates they will try to steer around it.
All this is good news for advocates of an East of Hanford route like people from Tulare County who want the station to be as close as possible to boost ridership.
Besides the water issue lapping at their feet, Authority board members have appeared to hear the voices from Tulare County who have stepped up their lobbying efforts in recent months.
In addition, Kings EDC president John Lehn says a west of Hanford alignment would rule out any chance for Kings County to compete for a heavy maintenance facility that could employ 1500 because all their submitted candidate sites are on the east side.
Just when the Authority board will finalize this ssue is still a ways off.It won’t be on the agenda in September says Lisa Marie Alley, the Authority’s spokesperson.