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Altered route recommended for high-speed rail leg

Juliet Williams, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Officials with California's high-speed rail project are recommending a new route for the second leg of the bullet train south of Fresno, in what officials say is an effort to address local concerns and do the least damage to the environment.

Rail authority officials said Thursday that the board will consider a staff proposal next week for a route that includes the so-called "Hanford East" alignment for a 114-mile stretch from Fresno to Bakersfield. Engineering work already has started on the first section, a 30-mile stretch from Madera to Fresno, and the authority is buying land there.

The eastern alignment would send trains in between Hanford and Visalia, then veer west along an existing freight rail corridor. Rail officials previously recommended that the bullet train go west of Hanford, but Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales says the eastern route would do less harm to the environment.

Hanford, a city of 55,000 that is 30 miles south of Fresno, is home to some of the most vocal critics of the $68 billion high-speed rail project. Kings County and several residents are suing the state and will appear in court against the authority next week, seeking to block further work.

"For our community, nothing changes today," said Aaron Fukuda, a Hanford homeowner who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "We had two bad alignments coming through Kings County."

Morales, the CEO, said selecting the eastern span also would avoid crossing through an area where hydraulic fracturing is underway, which would require the high-speed rail authority to purchase more expensive land and relocate sophisticated drilling operations.

If the board approves pursuing the new route between Fresno and Bakersfield, the rail authority will submit its environmental reports to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose approval is required, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The rail project still faces several legal hurdles, including next week's hearing before a Sacramento County Superior Court judge who has ruled that the rail authority's business plan does not comply with the $10 billion ballot initiative voters approved in 2008. At that time, the total cost of the project was pegged at $45 billion.

The overall rail plan calls for a 520-mile route linking the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area by 2029.