Rare Fresno high-speed rail board meeting packs conference room

The Fresno BeeMarch 18, 2013 

The California High-Speed Rail Authority holds most of its board meetings in Sacramento. But a special teleconference meeting Monday offered Fresno-area residents a chance to attend without making the three-hour haul up Highway 99.

About two dozen people -- including members of Kings County's grassroots opposition group Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability -- crammed into a conference room in the downtown Fresno office of developer Tom Richards, who is one of the authority board's vice chairpersons, for a teleconference that originated from the state Treasurer's Office in Sacramento.

The meeting was for the rail board to consider an agreement with the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the Caltrain commuter train system between San Francisco and San Jose. The agreement covers joint planning of Caltrain upgrades so its tracks can be used by high-speed trains as part of a "blended" high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley.

The rail board was stymied from voting on the issue about two weeks ago when member Lynn Schenk of San Diego announced that she would vote against the planning agreement. This time around, the board approved the agreement on a 5-0 vote -- the bare minimum needed from a board with three vacancies among its nine allotted seats. Schenk was absent from Monday's teleconference.

Four board members attended by way of teleconference from remote locations across the state. Balky technology hampered those in Richards' office from hearing some of the speakers in Sacramento, Redwood City and Costa Mesa.

The Kings County contingent are regulars at high-speed rail meetings, but also on hand Monday in Fresno were Madera County Supervisor Manuel Nevarez and Ed Graveline of Clovis, a former member of the High-Speed Rail Authority board from its earliest days between 1997 and 2001.

"I rarely miss a meeting, whether it's in the Bay Area or Sacramento or Los Angeles," Graveline said. "I have a bit of history, and I'm just interested in seeing the authority move forward with its plans."

Graveline said he hoped to learn about the authority's goal for 30% of work building the initial stretches of high-speed rail in the Valley go to local small businesses. While that issue wasn't on Monday's agenda, he expressed dismay that the efforts had been shifted to a community benefit agreement that some opponents have decried as a project labor agreement ensuring that the bulk of jobs would be filled by union workers.

"There's been a union representative on the authority board from Day 1, but I never thought we'd get to a point where, regardless of where you are in the state, you'd be folded into a union or have to pay into a union pension fund to get work on the project," Graveline said after the meeting. "It seems like a real bummer to put that on the backs of the local contracting or engineering firms."

Another attendee, first-timer John Young of Fresno, is a retired conductor who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for 37 years. "This was the first meeting I heard of that was here, so I didn't have to drive out of town," he said.

Young said he wants to know how the rail authority expects to get its high-speed trains from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. He left disappointed, learning only that the agency has opted to head southeast from Bakersfield over the Tehachapi Mountains to Mojave, Lancaster and Palmdale and then southwest into the Los Angeles Basin. Young said the Bakersfield-Palmdale rail corridor is already used by about 24 freight trains each day, and suggested that there's no room for high-speed train tracks.

Another person looking for answers -- and getting few -- was Jim Koch of Fresno, who owns property at Tuolumne and F streets, not far from where the high-speed tracks would run through downtown Fresno. Koch said that the rail line will require the closure of the Tuolumne Street bridge over the existing Union Pacific Railroad line near his business, and expressed concern over how that would affect traffic flows into the downtown district. "Taking out that bridge will take out a one-way street that reaches much of downtown," he said.

He expressed confidence, however, that joint planning between the city of Fresno and the rail agency would find a solution. "But I'd like to have as much lead time as possible to know if they're going to take out my property," he said.

The planning agreement approved Monday between the high-speed rail board and Caltrain envisions a partnership to achieve a $1.4 billion upgrade to the Caltrain system, including more than $700 million from the rail authority to improve signaling systems and electrify the line for electric trains by 2019. The planning of the Caltrain improvements comes as the rail authority prepares to begin construction later this year on its first stretch of dedicated high-speed tracks in Madera and Fresno counties.

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

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