U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, whose agency has committed several billion dollars of federal stimulus and railroad improvement funds toward high-speed rail construction in the San Joaquin Valley, got a chance Monday to see firsthand what the government is getting for its investment.
Foxx, accompanied by California state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly and Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, toured several of the sites in Fresno and Madera counties where major construction is underway on the first stages of the statewide bullet-train project.
Those included a 1,600-foot-long viaduct to carry the high-speed tracks above the Fresno River, Highway 145 and Raymond Road east of Madera; a new bridge and elevated tracks across the San Joaquin River and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks at the Fresno-Madera county line near Highway 99; and the new Tuolumne Street bridge over the future high-speed tracks in downtown Fresno.
In the shadow of the Tuolumne Street bridge, Foxx also met with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
More than $3 billion from the Obama administration – much of it from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – is being used for work in the Valley.
“It’s important for the secretary to see what the benefit of that investment is, not just structures in the air but what it means for small business growth in this region,” Kelly said. “It was a big day to show him that the ARRA dollars are being put to use for exactly what they were intended.”
During his visit, Foxx met with owners of small-business subcontractors “who have expanded their businesses to be part of this project,” Kelly said.
There’s a big difference between hearing about it and seeing pictures, and actually coming out to see it.
Jeff Morales, California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO
This was not Foxx’s first trip to Fresno – he previously was in town in 2013 when he announced a $16 million federal grant to the city for the Fulton Street restoration project in downtown Fresno to reopen the Fulton Mall to vehicle traffic. But this was his first chance to lay eyes on the high-speed rail work.
“There’s a big difference between hearing about it and seeing pictures, and actually coming out to see it,” Morales said. “He got to see the full picture of not just the (future) transportation benefits but the economic benefits that are starting to be realized here.”
Between the prime contractor, Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, and subcontractors, “85 percent of all the workers on the project are Valley residents,” Morales said. “That’s real, and it’s making a difference in this community.”
What Foxx didn’t bring with him, however, was a commitment of future federal dollars for the long-range expansion of the rail project.
A Republican-controlled Congress has been steadfast in its opposition to providing any additional money for California’s high-speed rail project, forcing the state to rely on its own resources – $9.9 billion from Proposition 1A, a bond measure approved by state voters in 2008, and an annual share of cap-and-trade money from the state’s greenhouse gas-reduction program – to plan for extending the project beyond the San Joaquin Valley.
The rail authority’s plan is to build first toward San Jose for the first operational stage, and then southward over the Tehachapi Mountains into Palmdale and on to the San Fernando Valley.
The entire Phase 1 rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles carries an estimated price tag of about $64 billion. No cost estimates have been offered for Phase 2 extensions to Sacramento, the Inland Empire and San Diego.
Kelly said the state remains hopeful of securing more federal help. “We had a positive conversation about that and a positive vibe about that,” Kelly said Monday. “We are reaching out to the secretary now about how we expand our partnership going forward. We’re going to need that partnership to continue to make it work.”
Costa said that while money is crucial to advancing the project, “don’t hold this project to a different standard than we would other major public works projects,” citing freeways and dams as examples. “Is the money ever all there for these projects? No, but if that’s going to be our standard, we’ll never move forward with any of these. … That’s why we build these things in phases.”