The Fresno City Council got a sobering message about the state's high-speed rail dream -- building it may be more trouble than it's worth.
In an hour-long workshop Thursday, Assistant Public Works Director Scott Mozier told the council that construction of the system through the city's heart will pose immense problems for City Hall and for Fresnans trying to live a normal life.
And it'll go on like this for about five years, he added.
"This is new territory for us," said Mozier, who took no policy position of the wisdom of high-speed rail but works for a mayor who strongly supports the project.
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It was the first time the council had been publicly warned in detail about the high social and financial costs of a train system that has been pitched as a cure for Fresno's economic ills. The three council members whose districts will be most affected -- Andreas Borgeas, Blong Xiong and Oliver Baines -- already had received staff briefings on the challenges.
But Mozier's calm but relentless recitation of displaced businesses, threatened tax revenues, incessant traffic jams, split neighborhoods and angry residents clearly stunned many council members.
The potential effects of the rail line in Fresno haven't exactly been a secret. The California High-Speed Rail Authority's draft environmental impact reports for the Merced-to-Fresno and Fresno-to-Bakersfield sections of the statewide project have been publicly available for two months. Next Thursday is the deadline for the city -- and anyone else -- to comment on the draft reports.
Specific answers to the city's concerns likely won't come until at least January, when the rail authority expects to release a final version of the Merced-Fresno environmental report. The final report will include all of the comments submitted by cities, counties, other agencies, businesses and the public, as well as the authority's responses and any revisions to the plans based on the feedback.
A revised draft of the Fresno-Bakersfield report, which includes part of the city south of downtown, is due to be reissued in five or six months.
Baines said he supports high-speed rail 100%, but was "floored" Thursday by what Mozier said Fresnans can expect to go through in the next five years.
He said his biggest concern is that high-speed rail is barreling toward Fresno in a matter of months, but Fresnans still have no clear idea of the extent of the challenges, their cost or possible measures to resolve them.
Big hit to businesses
Supported by a 37-page slide show, Mozier reviewed problems both big and small.
It's been well documented that the route from northwest Fresno at the San Joaquin River to southwest Fresno near Malaga will kick hundreds of businesses out of their current locations.
Mozier said this will put a big strain on the city's planning staff as it tries to process paperwork for relocations. The planning staff already has been reduced during the budget crisis, and city officials may have to decide whether routine city planning business takes a back seat to high-speed rail issues, he said.
Council Member Larry Westerlund said he is worried displaced businesses may give up on Fresno and relocate elsewhere in the Valley or out of state.
Mozier said City Hall is concerned that a slowdown in business along the proposed route could lead to lower property- and sales-tax revenue for the city.
Mozier said another potential threat to business, not to mention the patience of drivers, is the construction of complex interchanges where major east-west streets would cross the high-speed rail route.
Mozier noted that the city needed 18 months to build the two underpasses at Shaw and Marks avenues in northwest Fresno. Imagine something similar occurring at major rail/street intersections from one end of the city to the other, he said.
Seemingly small things could become major problems, Mozier added. For example, he said the proposed sound walls along the route could be a target for taggers. Who handles graffiti abatement?
The proposed route comes very near the Forestiere Underground Gardens in northwest Fresno and the Chaffee Zoo in Roeding Park, which is about to embark on a major expansion. Mozier said vibrations from construction could harm the underground gardens or affect the zoo's animals.
City Hall hopes that the tracks run beneath ground level, in a huge trench, Mozier said. This would be less disruptive to streets but also would be more expensive, he said.
Ideally, Mozier said, both the high-speed trains and the Union Pacific Railroad's trains would run on their own tracks in this trench. His presentation included the drawing of a trench about 25 feet deep and nearly 300 feet wide that could handle both systems.
Through it all, council members returned to one theme: We need to know every cost, and we need to know if the rail authority will pay them. Westerlund was adamant on this point, saying high-speed rail shouldn't cost the city a penny.
Thursday's workshop was part of the city's efforts to formally respond to the rail authority's draft environmental report on the route from mid-downtown to Merced. Failure to meet the Oct. 13 comment deadline could affect the city's ability to take legal action later.
The council's surprise comes despite a Sept. 20 pledge by Mayor Ashley Swearengin to involve members in the response process. Speaking at the rail authority's public hearing on the environmental reports, Swearengin said "we will consult with the City Council several weeks before [the deadline] and make sure we have a consensus viewpoint on our response from the city."
Council members took no public testimony Thursday, nor did they act to endorse Mozier's report or vote to draft their own response. And despite their obvious concern over the project's effects, with no council meeting set for Oct. 13, members were essentially entrusting Mozier to speak on their behalf.
By Friday, however, some council members had second thoughts.
Council President Lee Brand said he will decide Monday whether to call a special meeting before the deadline. He said the council may want to refine the city's response and formally present its own demands.
Brand said Mozier's presentation "threw cold water on me. I'm shocked by what's going to happen and the enormity of this. We're not prepared."
Rail authority listening
The rail authority and its consultants have been working with the city -- with three to four meetings a month for more than a year -- over local concerns and will continue to do so, said Rachel Wall, a spokeswoman for the state agency.
In some major ways, the city already has managed to influence the authority's planned route through Fresno.
A proposal for miles of tracks elevated above central Fresno came back down to earth earlier this year. In May, the rail authority abandoned its plan for a viaduct to carry the tracks as high as 60 feet off the ground in favor of building the line at ground level instead.
The change came because city officials had what Swearengin called "deep concerns" about elevated tracks creating a visual and economic barrier across Fresno.
With the tracks at ground level next to the Union Pacific freight tracks, several street-level railroad crossings in the city would be closed, and others -- including major thoroughfares such as Shaw, McKinley, Olive and Church avenues -- would be replaced by overpasses that span both the UP and high-speed rail tracks. Some existing overpasses would be rebuilt to cross both sets of tracks.
There is, however, much to be resolved between the city and the rail authority.
The authority has been working with Swearengin's administration on several major issues, Wall said, including coming up with "a mutually beneficial solution to the temporary increase in permitting requests" for business and home relocations; how to stagger construction of overpasses and minimize traffic effects; ensuring continued street access for businesses near the rail line; and future graffiti abatement on overpasses and other railroad structures.
"Fresno may be the model and set the standard for how we should be doing business with cities," Wall said.
But, she added, no final agreements on specific issues can be done until the environmental review process is completed next year.
"Until that time," Wall said, "the discussions will continue to be conceptual."