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By Angela Cotey, Senior Associate EditorAll the fits and starts, ups and downs, and decades of planning that have gone into the proposed California high-speed rail project resulted in some tangible progress this year — progress that the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) plans to expand on in 2014. In June, CHSRA awarded its design-build contract for the first construction package as part of the high-speed rail project's first phase. A Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons joint venture will construct the 29-mile Madera-to-Fresno segment of the high-speed rail corridor under a $985 million contract. The firms began pre-construction work in August, and utility relocation now is under way. Other 2013 progress was less visible, but no less important. CHSRA ramped up its "skeletal" staff and now has all of its top positions filled with "high-caliber people," says Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales. In addition, the authority added three new board members, filling all vacant positions."Bringing in the right kind of people we need to get this done has been a very high priority," says Morales, citing former Amtrak chief engineer Frank Vacca, who serves as CHSRA's chief program manager, as a key hire. CHSRA also reached an agreement with several Central Valley farm bureaus and stakeholders on plans to mitigate the impact of high-speed rail construction on agricultural operations. CHSRA's efforts to work more closely with farmers in Merced and Madera counties helped the authority settle lawsuits and avoid litigation that would have been costly and time consuming, possibly causing project delays, says Morales."We've been working much harder to understand what the real concerns are, and what sort of assurances were needed for them to be comfortable and for us to get some classic win-wins out of working together," he says. "And I think we now have a better feel for what the agricultural issues are and how we can reach resolutions going forward."Reaching out to the farming community and other stakeholders has been a top priority for Morales since he took CHSRA's reins about 18 months ago, he says. CHSRA officials will need to continue fostering relationships with stakeholders as they encounter road bumps along the project development and construction path. The latest: In late November, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny denied a request by CHSRA to issue a blanket validation for the sale of more than $8 billion in Proposition 1A bonds, which were approved by California voters in 2008. In a separate but related ruling, Kenny also mandated CHSRA to re-write its 2011 funding plan before spending any state bond money on the high-speed system construction. However, the rulings do not prevent the state from selling the bonds, nor did the judge order CHSRA to rescind the approval of contracts for the first construction segment. "We are reviewing both decisions to chart our next steps, but it's important to stress that the court again declined the opposition's request to stop the high-speed rail project from moving forward," said CHSRA Board Chairman Dan Richard in a Nov. 25 article posted on the Fresno Bee's website.
In the meantime, CHSRA execs hope to reach a series of milestones in 2014. Chief among them: issuing a contract for Construction Package 2-3. In October, the authority issued a request for qualifications for a design-build contract that would cover a 60-mile segment running from Fresno south to just before the Tulare/Kern County line. CHSRA estimates the contract would be valued at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. Interested contractors have submitted statements of qualifications; from there, the authority will select a short list of firms to submit design-build proposals. Environmental clearance for the route is under way and scheduled to be complete by summer 2014. CHSRA plans to award a contract for project and construction management services for Construction Package 2-3 in early 2014, and a design-build contract later in the year.The authority also will continue the appraisal process for certain parcels, and continue to issue offers and enter into negotiations to acquire property along the high-speed rail right of way. Also on the docket: executing an agreement with Union Pacific Railroad for engineering, construction, maintenance, and related indemnification and insurance requirements covering the Merced-to-Bakersfield portion of the route.In the San Francisco area, CHSRA officials expect the Caltrain electrification project — which will enable high-speed trains to operate on the commuter-rail right of way — will begin "in earnest," says Morales.And later in 2014, CHSRA expects to issue a request for proposals in partnership with Amtrak for train sets that can operate at speeds up to 220 mph. CHSRA anticipates an initial request of up to 20 trains for the initial operating segment, while Amtrak will be purchasing trains for the Northeast Corridor. "By this time next year, we should have close to $3 billion worth of work under contract and under way," says Morales. "That's a very significant milestone."