At long last, the city of Hesperia is going to start buying right-of-way for the long-awaited Ranchero Road underpass.

The Federal Environmental Document for the proposed crossing under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks received final approval from the California Department of Transportation on Wednesday, clearing the way for the city to begin buying the necessary land.

"We've been working on it for, I've got to count back," City Manager Mike Podegracz mused Thursday afternoon. "We started this in 2003. So this would be, what, four or five years. It's just been a very long process."

There are $13.9 million in federal funds earmarked for the project, which means the proposal had to follow federal procedures.

"We had to have the environmental review approved before we can buy right of way," Podegracz said. "It's fully funded, it's just been the environmental review process."

Now the city will be approaching landowners near the future underpass and attempting to purchase the needed land.

"We would hope to have it done in six to nine months, but again, that depends on how well we're working with the property owners," Podegracz said. They're starting from scratch at this point: "We're prohibited to speak with any of the property owners during the environmental process."

Barring any major surprises, the city could begin construction about this time next year.

"Once they start construction, it'll be anywhere from 18 to 24 months, depending on weather," Podegracz said.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.