Fresno County supervisors make no decision on opposing high-speed rail

The Fresno BeeJuly 15, 2014 

Fresno County supervisors pushed off a vote Tuesday on reversing their support for California's high-speed rail project, delaying a symbolic decision by two weeks to get more information.

Following about four hours of discussion, including more than two hours of comment from 36 speakers, Supervisor Debbie Poochigian urged her board colleagues to ask the county's staff to prepare a resolution opposing the statewide bullet-train plan. But her motion died without a second from any of the other supervisors.

Instead, a visibly frustrated Poochigian -- who wrote the proposed opposition resolution -- found herself on the losing end of a 4-1 vote to extend the debate to the board's July 29 meeting. "We have been working on this seven years, so I don't know what more information we can get or what questions we can answer," Poochigian said.

Poochigian clutched a photocopy of the state voter pamphlet for Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure that was approved by California voters in November 2008. She pointed to differences in cost estimates, system characteristics and ridership estimates between the ballot measure and the California High-Speed Rail Authority's latest $68 billion plan to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley. She was also critical that private investment, once expected to account for one-third of the financing for the system, has yet to materialize.

Poochigian said she sympathized with speakers from the public who talked about their travails with the rail authority over how the train route would affect their property, disputes over appraisal values and lack of communication. But, she added, "if there's an expectation that there won't be any interruption to lands or homes or businesses, that's not realistic when you have something of this magnitude."

"But the bigger question is ... knowing what we know now and since 2012, do we still support this project the way it's written?" Poochigian asked, referring to a 2012 letter to the rail agency in which supervisors had questions about issues, including business dislocation, projected revenues and cost estimates. Those questions, Poochigian said, have gone unanswered.

Poochigian's proposed resolution falls short of legal action taken by other Valley counties against the rail authority. Kings County is suing the agency over compliance with Prop. 1A, while Kings and Kern counties are suing over the approval of a Fresno-Bakersfield route for the trains.

Among the public speakers, bullet-train foes outnumbered rail supporters by almost two to one. After the public's turn, supervisors' comments from the dais suggest that three of Poochigian's colleagues -- board chairman Andreas Borgeas, Phil Larson and Judy Case McNairy -- may be inclined to at least withdraw support for the program, if not stand in outright opposition.

Fresno County's support "is important to the program," rail authority CEO Jeff Morales said Tuesday.

"This is where we're starting, we've had a good partnership with the county before, and we want to maintain that partnership," he said. "We're going to take every opportunity to answer their questions and keep people supportive and on board."

Morales said a reversal of the supervisors' support for high-speed rail would have no direct effect on the agency's federal grants or funding plans, or on selecting a site in the San Joaquin Valley for a heavy maintenance facility for the train system.

But "actions have consequences," he added. "When people talk about private investment, a very chilling factor for private investors is hearing things about not supporting the system."

Morales told supervisors that about a dozen companies have expressed interest in providing private investment into the rail system as it develops.

Learn more about high-speed rail

Borgeas said he has been critical of high-speed rail since he was on the Fresno City Council, but acknowledged the board's history of support. "I know there's a lot of weight to what's happening today and perhaps two weeks from now ... to change the direction of the board's sentiment to this project."

"I don't think it's going to change the outcome of the high-speed rail project," he added. "I think that will likely be decided by the courts."

The state faces at least 10 lawsuits on various fronts, including Prop. 1A compliance, the sale of bonds, the Fresno-Bakersfield route, and the potential use of cap-and-trade money from California's greenhouse-gas reduction program for high-speed rail.

Supervisor Henry Perea, the one board member in unequivocal support for high-speed rail, said Tuesday that the U.S. spent $68 billion in infrastructure improvements in Afghanistan during the war on terror. He asked how there could be a problem with spending a similar amount on a project he thinks will bring jobs and improve the Valley economy.

Marc Benjamin contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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