Madera County joins high-speed rail opponents

The Fresno BeeJanuary 27, 2012 

The ranks of local government agencies in the central San Joaquin Valley that have turned their backs on California's proposed high-speed rail system is growing.

The latest to join the chorus is Madera County, where the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Tuesday to reverse its earlier conditional support. Supervisors cited a rising price tag, a growing lack of confidence in the state High-Speed Rail Authority, and frustration with the selection of a route through the county that disrupts more agricultural acreage than their preferred option.

The rail authority is proposing to build a 520-mile system of electric trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim. A stretch of tracks from Merced to Bakersfield would represent the "backbone" of the statewide system where construction would begin later this year. High-speed electric trains would not run on the tracks until the system reaches either San Jose or the Los Angeles basin.

Ultimately, plans call for extensions of the system to Sacramento and San Diego.

After listening to more than two hours of statements from the public -- most against the train plans -- Madera supervisors expressed their own concerns about cost estimates that leaped in November from $45 billion for the San Francisco-Los Angeles phase to more than $98 billion; and the rail authority's choice in December of a route that wanders between the Union Pacific rail line near Highway 99 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line a few miles to the east -- an option that contradicts a route that the supervisors earlier supported.

"This puts the High-Speed Rail Authority on notice that we're serious," Supervisor Frank Bigelow said. "We're tired of being jacked with."

Bigelow said that while the resolution rescinds earlier votes of conditional support for the system and declares outright opposition to the high-speed rail plans, it does not diminish the board's support for locating a heavy maintenance station for the trains in Madera County.

But Supervisor Max Rodriguez said the resolution sends the wrong message to state rail officials. "The maintenance yard is ours to lose," he said. "To oppose the project only hinders our opportunity to be selected."

"As leaders, we need to make the choice to stay engaged and continue fighting for the economic benefit of this project," added Rodriguez, who was the lone holdout against the resolution.

The maintenance yard is considered an economic golden goose -- a permanent installation with as many as 1,500 or more employees to service trains for the statewide system. Sites in Merced, Madera, Fresno and Kern counties are all vying for consideration.

All along the route through the Valley, a majority of city councils and county boards of supervisors have staked out positions opposing high-speed rail to one degree or another.

Madera County joins Kings and Tulare counties in opposing the state's plans. Merced and Fresno counties officially support high-speed rail, and Kern County has taken no formal position.

Among Valley cities along the proposed route, those opposed to the current rail plans or routes are Chowchilla in Madera County, Hanford and Corcoran in Kings County, and Wasco and Bakersfield in Kern County. The cities of Merced and Madera officially support the proposed project, while the Merced County town of Los Banos and Shafter, in Kern County, have taken no formal position.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has been an outspoken supporter of high-speed rail, but the city council in the Valley's largest city has taken no formal position, said Council Member Lee Brand, the immediate past council president.

"Right now, if a vote came to the City Council, I think it would be a close vote," said Brand, who said he opposes high-speed rail. "I think it would be a 4-3 vote or a 3-4 vote, and I don't know which way it would go."

The debate between fiscal responsibility and economic promise can be seen in Merced. There, the city council voted in recent weeks to support the rail authority's latest business plan. Mayor Stan Thurston was one of two council members who disagreed in the 5-2 vote.

"We did not support the business plan because there was no identifiable funding source to build the project in Merced," Thurston said. "To me, a business plan without funding is just a wish list."

But high-speed rail and a station in Merced "would make us more of a hub for the central part of the state," Merced City Manager John Bramble said, "and that will help us grow on a reasonable basis and become a part to the overall state solution to our economic foundation."

The latest version of plans, he added, has "a lot of potential, but still needs work."

Merced Sun-Star staff writer Ameera Butt contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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