High-speed rail officials reject jobs request

The Fresno BeeJanuary 13, 2012 

A proposal to require high-speed rail contractors to hire nearly one-third of their workers from high-unemployment areas was rebuffed Thursday by state rail officials.

But the California High-Speed Rail Authority will ask three of its board members to meet with the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board and the Fresno Works Consortium to look for other ways to ensure that construction of the rail project creates much-needed jobs in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The Obama administration has committed more than $3 billion to start building the statewide rail program in the Valley. That includes federal stimulus money intended to help the region recover from the lingering effects of the recession.

But Thomas Fellenz, the rail authority's chief counsel, told board members meeting in Los Angeles that federal contracting law prohibits geographic limitations in hiring requirements. Adopting a proposal to require 30% of the construction work force be hired from areas of chronic high unemployment would run afoul of the authority's federal grant agreements.

Construction of the first stretch of tracks for the high-speed rail system between Madera and Bakersfield is proposed to start later this year, if the state Legislature approves the sale of bonds to match the federal contributions. The rail authority hopes to ask contractors to submit bids for the work this spring.

But several board members said they understand the desire for jobs in the Valley. Three members -- Russ Burns, Michael Rossi and Robert Balgenorth -- were appointed to meet with the Valley work-force advocates on proposals that can address Federal Railroad Administration concerns.

"The best thing is that this is a clear indication that the rail authority wants a program that will benefit unemployed workers," said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board. "The most important thing is that the authority created this subcommittee to review the issue, and we're eager to work with them to come up with language that will pass federal muster."

Fresno developer Tom Richards, the rail authority's vice chairman, left the meeting room to abstain from the discussion because he is also the chairman of the Fresno work-force board.

In reports issued last summer, the authority estimated that at the peak of construction in the Valley, the high-speed rail project could employ about 1,300 people a year in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties -- a far cry from earlier estimates of as many as 20,000 jobs in the Valley.

Grapevine route off the table

In other action, the authority board voted to abandon further study of a route over the Grapevine between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. In doing so, the authority confirmed a preference for a high-speed line that goes through Palmdale and the Antelope Valley.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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