At Kent Avenue, a little west of Highway 43, concrete is poured to create the deck of the Kent Avenue overcrossing in this April California High-Speed Rail Authority photo.

published on August 13, 2019 - 1:32 PM
Written by John Lindt

No track for the bullet train in Kings County has been laid, but most of the 65-mile right-of-way has been bought and a number of bridges are near completion as of summer 2019.

On Tuesday, Kings County — the most stubborn opponent of the controversial high-speed train project — decided to throw in the towel after a decade-long battle. We may never know if the county’s strategy was to delay until political support waned, but one could argue that after 10 years of protracted ligation, they may have won that battle. The scope of the project has now been pared down and its future remains questionable.

Kings County has agreed to settle lawsuits with the California High Speed Rail Authority over a series of legal actions brought by the county over the past decade. The supervisors approved a settlement agreement Tuesday in a 5-0 vote.

The settlement includes Kings County lawsuits against the certification of the Fresno to Bakersfield Section Final Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement, the interpretation and constitutionality of Assembly Bill 1889, and several California Public Utility Commission applications filed by the Authority over the design of vehicle overpasses in the county.

In the agreement, the state rail Authority has agreed to give “ten million dollars to the County for reimbursement of staff time, the relocation of Fire Station No. 4, and for General Plan updates.” Also “one million dollars to the City of Corcoran in mitigation funds for aesthetic improvements.” In turn the county agrees to dismiss the County’s suits and administrative challenges.

The two sides have been talking since last summer, and in February, Kings Supervisor Doug Verboon said they were close to an agreement. ”It’s in the hands of the lawyers,“ he said in an interview.

In June, the Los Angeles Times also reported that a cease-fire was near. Both sides had spent millions to do battle, delaying the project significantly. Still, construction has edged forward.

That battle spread to the California Public Utilities Commission in 2018 in a dispute over the safety of the overpass design in Kings County. The overpasses allow the rail to run at grade underneath as vehicle traffic crosses overhead at a number of key Kings County intersections. After several PUC hearings, by February 2019 the matter was taken off the PUC calendar due to “pending settlement,” according to PUC transcripts.

Last month, Kings County Public Works Director Kevin McAlister said the overpasses under construction now did not meet the design changes the county had been seeking — making them wider than HSR had planned, for example. The Rail Authority insisted the designs were safe and no different than others built in neighboring counties. Some 36 grade separations are being built in the Central Valley segment in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.

Last month, the Rail Authority highlighted construction of several of the overpasses in Kings County, including Kent Avenue south of Hanford, putting an exclamation point on the fact that the design would not be changed.

Still to be sorted out are plans for the construction of a Tulare County/Hanford station near the intersection of Highways 43 and 198. The agreement says the two sides continue to work on some other issues.

Kings County officials are concerned about what happens if Amtrak were to be relocated to the planned station stop, leaving the Downtown Hanford station surplus. The east of Hanford rail stop site was chosen by the Rail Authority when Hanford officials made it clear they did not want the bullet train to run through town.

Relocating the high speed rail tracks away from the current BNSF route in turn angered farmers over the land taking process, prompting Kings County, in support of the farmers, to do all they could to stop the project, including multiple lawsuits and a policy of non-cooperation. Lawsuits were launched once state financing was assured after Proposition 1A was approved by the state’s voters in 2008. Kings County lost several lawsuits over that vote. Federal funding was approved a year later. Now President Trump wants to revoke what is left of those federal funds and the state has vowed to fight that in court.

It is now considered likely that the Central Valley rail segment will be completed connecting Bakersfield with Merced, connecting a speedier version of Amtrak to the Bay Area, but not one that travels 220 mph.

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