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High-Speed Rail Racks Up High Costs for Central California

Three years in, California's High Speed Rail is going to cost an extra $35 million for the state Department of Transportation to fulfill its obligations.

(TNS) -- Contractors for the California High-Speed Rail Authority have started widening the shoulders of Highway 180 north of downtown Fresno, preparing to detour traffic for the eventual excavation of a trench that will carry the high-speed train tracks under the freeway.

In the meantime, a few miles north, work by the state Department of Transportation to relocate a 2-mile stretch of Highway 99 to make room for high-speed trains is going to cost about $35 million more than originally estimated.

The trench and the highway relocation are major components of the first 32-mile construction segment of the rail authority’s proposed bullet-train system to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. Work on the project has been delayed by a number of factors since the first contracts were awarded three years ago, principally the slow pace of right-of-way acquisition for construction.

When it’s completed in about 18 to 24 months, the Fresno Trench will span nearly 1 3/4 miles from Roeding Park to Stanislaus Street. At the deepest point, the high-speed rail tracks will be about 40 feet below the surface of the ground – deep enough to go beneath the highway as well as under a nearby freight railroad spur and irrigation canal.

Hugo Mejia, the rail authority’s construction manager in the Fresno-Madera area, said the installation of the trench under the freeway – “it’s not long enough to be called a tunnel,” he said – is expected to cost about $4 million, including the expenses of diverting traffic onto temporary detour lanes during the construction. The authority and its prime contractor, Tutor Perini / Zachry / Parsons, hope to receive approval from the Union Pacific Railroad in about 45 days for excavation and construction plans to burrow beneath the rail spur. Caltrans has already signed off on the trench under the highway.

Once crews are done widening and paving the shoulders of Highway 180, traffic will be diverted in stages as excavation takes place below. “Caltrans requires us to have three lanes of traffic open in each direction at all times,” said Tyler Bradford, a construction engineer with Tutor Perini / Zachry / Parsons.

The Tutor Perini group was awarded a contract of about $1 billion for the Fresno-Madera construction segment in mid-2013. It was the first of three contracts that have been awarded, totaling nearly $3 billion, to build about 119 miles of the rail line from Madera to north of Bakersfield.

A separate contract was awarded earlier in 2013 for Caltrans to handle the relocation of Highway 99. At that time, the two state agencies agreed on a price of $225.9 million for shoving the highway lanes west by about 100 feet between Ashlan and Clinton avenues through central Fresno and rebuilding several overpasses and interchanges.

Three years on, it’s going to cost an extra $35 million for the state Department of Transportation to fulfill its obligations. And changes to the contract are expected to push the schedule from its original completion deadline of June 2018 to December 2018.

In that 2-mile stretch, the freeway runs right along the Union Pacific Railroad right of way. Nudging the freeway over will allow room to shoehorn the planned high-speed rail line between Highway 99 and the Union Pacific tracks.

Representatives for Caltrans and the rail authority both said changing circumstances helped push costs higher for the highway relocation.

“As the project advanced, we have gained additional information resulting in an increase of $35 million for construction,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the rail authority. Alley said the higher cost has been accounted for in the agency’s 2016 business plan and is not expected to affect the authority’s overall construction schedule or budget for the project in the Valley.

Matt Rocco, a Caltrans spokesman, said the original budget dates to late 2012. “The project scope has been fairly refined since then. Factors that contributed to the change include design modifications to minimize right-of-way impacts and underground utility conflicts,” Rocco said.

The actual shortfall is closer to $50 million, Rocco added. But he said Caltrans anticipates finding about $15 million in cost savings by fine-tuning the scope of the project “through such items as using asphalt vs. concrete, looking at aesthetics, etc.”

Caltrans also experienced difficulty in acquiring the property it needs for the work, Rocco said. The agency needed to buy more than 40 pieces of land, and now has secured all but seven. A report to the rail authority’s board on Tuesday noted that parcel acquisition for the Highway 99 project “is lagging due to eminent domain proceedings on multiple parcels and the significant lead time in the court system to obtain an order of possession.” The state had to resort to eminent domain, or condemnation, to acquire seven of the 42 parcels required when it could not negotiate purchase agreements with those owners.

Contractors for Caltrans have been working on associated parts of the project, including rebuilding the Clinton Avenue exit that carries drivers coming from southbound Highway 99 to an underpass onto Golden State Boulevard.

©2016 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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