High-speed rail board teleports meeting to Fresno

The Fresno BeeMarch 16, 2013 

Leaders of California's high-speed rail efforts will take another swing Monday at approving an agreement to electrify a Bay Area train system as a step toward creating a statewide rail network.

The special meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority illustrates the political sausage-grinding involved in the high-speed train project. Board members who barely mustered a quorum a little over a week ago for a meeting in Redwood City will teleconference from three different locations across the state to make sure they have the votes to OK the deal.

One of those sites will be the downtown Fresno office of developer Tom Richards, one of the rail board's two vice chairpersons.

Under state open-meeting laws, not only must the main meeting at the state Treasurer's Office in Sacramento be open to the public, but each teleconference site -- including the one in Fresno -- must accommodate public attendance as well.

Rob Wilcox, the authority's communications director, said anyone who attends in Fresno will have an opportunity to offer public comment during the meeting.

While it may sound unusual, the rail authority has allowed its members to teleconference when they have not been able to physically attend meetings in Sacramento.

It takes on particular importance this time because of what happened at the monthly board meeting March 6 in Redwood City.

The agenda included an agreement pledging to spend more than $700 million to upgrade the Caltrain corridor between San Jose and San Francisco. The rail authority had previously gone on record saying it was on board with the deal, so the vote figured to be a formality.

But with only six of nine board seats currently filled, it doesn't take much to derail a plan. That's what happened March 6 when board member Michael Rossi was absent and board member Lynn Schenk, who represents the San Diego area, unexpectedly announced her intention to vote against the deal.

Schenk acknowledged that she was outnumbered on the board. "I'm pretty good at counting votes, and once the majority has spoken I will fully support the efforts to make this happen," she said. "But this time I will have to vote no."

Schenk's announcement took the board's chairman, Dan Richard of Piedmont, by surprise, even though she had previously expressed skepticism over the blended Caltrain/high-speed rail plan in the Bay Area.

"I probably should have anticipated this conversation," he told Schenk, before asking her for a "courtesy vote" to approve the agreement while recognizing her reservations. "If we could move this forward, I would appreciate it because otherwise we'll just have to come back next month and do it," he said.

After a short break, during which Richard conferred with Schenk and the agency's chief counsel, Tom Fellenz, Richard withdrew his request and announced that the vote would be postponed until all of the members could attend.

Caltrain's board OK'd the agreement on March 7.

The maneuvering over the Bay Area stretch of the line dismayed high-speed rail opponents here in the San Joaquin Valley. Aaron Fukuda of Hanford said Richard's request for a courtesy vote from Schenk reflected "the heavy handed and truly tainted process that is unfolding."

Fukuda has been an outspoken foe of the high-speed rail plans -- he, along with Hanford farmer John Tos and the Kings County Board of Supervisors are suing the rail authority. But he praised Schenk for having "the guts to call out the others in their attempt to sabotage true high-speed rail."

Schenk, a former congresswoman, last week repeated her concern about the practicality of a "blended" system of shared tracks in the Bay Area. "I've tried to keep an open mind. I've listened. I've studied. I've debated," she said. "But I can't support it at the expense of the ultimate goal of high-speed rail."

"I have been a supporter of high-speed rail for many decades," she added. "I wrote the congressional bill on it. So my laser goal has been high-speed rail."

The declaration, however, represents an about-face for Schenk, who served as California's secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing during Gov. Jerry Brown's first stint as governor.

Last year, Schenk joined a unanimous 6-0 vote to approve the authority's revised business plan. A key component of that plan was using money from Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond approved by California voters in 2008, on improving commuter-rail lines in the Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin "bookends" of the dedicated high-speed system through the central part of the state.

At that time, in April 2012, Schenk said that while she originally was opposed to spending high-speed rail money on Caltrain, "I was and I continue to be willing to make the compromises ... that it will take to build high-speed rail."

Also on Monday's agenda, the rail authority board will request that the state issue about $8.6 billion in bonds authorized by Proposition 1A, the high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.

The state's High-Speed Passenger Train Finance Committee -- which includes the state treasurer, controller and finance director, the secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, and the rail authority chairman -- will decide on the bond issuance later on Monday.

The bonds will pay to start construction beginning later this year in Madera and Fresno counties.

The rail authority is expected to reveal soon the results of bidding by five teams vying for that first major construction contract, which could be worth $1.5 billion to $2 billion.


If you go

What: Special meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority

When: 11 a.m. Monday

Where: Teleconference site in Fresno at ML Street Properties, 855 M St., Suite 1110 (in the downtown United Security Bank building). Under state open-meeting laws, the teleconference site is open for the public to attend. (The meeting will originate from the Treasurer's Office in Sacramento.)

Details: cahighspeedrail.ca.gov

For more on high-speed rail, go to fresnobee.com/hsr

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

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