High-speed rail jobs may give priority to down-on-luck workers

The Fresno BeeNovember 14, 2012 

An artist's depiction of a California high-speed train.

Job-creation advocates in Fresno said they moved a step closer Wednesday to ensuring that local workers who need a job can compete for one building California's high-speed rail system.

Their hopes were boosted during the California High-Speed Rail Authority meeting in Sacramento, where bullet-train planners also took their first step to reducing their system's footprint on agriculture -- approving a $20 million effort to compensate for farmland lost to the railroad right of way.

Representatives from Fresno Works, a coalition of local government and business leaders, pitched a proposal Wednesday to establish a "national targeted hiring initiative." The program would put a premium on contractors to hire workers who live in communities with high rates of long-term unemployment or other economic hardship, or workers who are considered economically disadvantaged -- homeless, single parents who have custody of their children, chronically unemployed or other qualifying factors.

In reports done last year, the rail authority estimated that at the peak of building activity, about 1,300 people each year could be building the rail system in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

"We're not saying anybody should have a guaranteed job, but give people the opportunity to compete," said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board.

As proposed by Konczal, workers from extremely disadvantaged areas would have priority for 10% of all work hours from contractors, and disadvantaged workers could have dibs on 40% of the work hours.

It will be up to the rail authority to craft the actual language and priority percentages to be set in the final agreements with prime contractors. Bids to design and build the first 23-mile stretch of the rail line from Madera to downtown Fresno are due from contractors in mid-January, and a contract is expected to be awarded by mid-2013.

The rail authority gave a similar Fresno Works proposal only a lukewarm reception in January, after attorneys for the Federal Railroad Administration -- which is putting up more than $3 billion for construction in the San Joaquin Valley -- warned that federal law prohibited geographic preferences in hiring.

But Konczal told the rail authority's members that the FRA, under a new chief legal counsel, reversed its earlier objections so long as the revised initiative complies with state law. Konczal said the new plan is based very closely on a Los Angeles program that won federal approval.

Preserving farmland

The farmland-preservation action approved Wednesday authorizes the rail agency to work with the state Department of Conservation to put up at least $20 million to buy farmland conservation easements. For each acre of agricultural land that would be lost to the railroad right of way in the Valley -- an estimated 2,500 acres from Merced to Bakersfield -- at least one acre of permanent easement would be secured.

Farming advocates, however, said the authority is underestimating the cost.

Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, told board members that "$20 million is inadequate." That figure, she said, suggests that the authority expects to pay $8,000 per acre for its farmland easements. Carvajal said that falls far short of an estimate presented to the authority this year of $25,000 per acre.

The Merced County Farm Bureau is one of several parties to a lawsuit against the rail authority that seeks an injunction to block planning, land-buying and construction work on the Merced-Fresno portion of the rail system.

Carvajal said she believes the easements should target agricultural land that is at risk to be consumed by urban development, rather than acreage that is likely to remain in farming for years. But, she warned, it will likely cost more for easements on land that is nearer to cities than parcels that are more remote.

Justin Fredrickson, an environmental policy expert for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization supports easements "as part of a broader suite of mitigation measures to compensate for effects on agriculture."

But he agreed with Carvajal that "$20 million is very little money" to make up for lost farmland. Fredrickson added that while easements may address the direct acreage lost to the rail alignment, they may not compensate for the urban sprawl that high-speed rail could generate around cities with stations or maintenance yards.

Authority chairman Dan Richard sought to ease Farm Bureau worries, describing easements as the first step, "just one of a number of initiatives we're doing to try to deal with these issues."

He invited Fredrickson to discuss his concerns with the authority's staff to develop future plans. "This is going to be a living process that goes beyond this one agreement," Richard said.

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

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