With the deadline to respond just hours away, the Fresno City Council on Thursday said environmental studies of California's proposed high-speed rail system through the Valley leave too many questions unanswered.
City officials identified 11 major areas of concern for what is expected to be a five-year project beginning next year. These include the effects of construction on traffic, disruption of business and potential loss of sales and property taxes.
City officials also said completion of Veterans Boulevard, a new artery that would include an interchange with Highway 99 in northwest Fresno, is vital to maintaining traffic flow during construction.
The city's response on construction of about 15 miles of high-speed track through Fresno had to be turned in by 5 p.m. Thursday.
The council asked that the response to the California High-Speed Rail Authority include two items not identified by city staff:
- A request for a rail authority-funded ombudsman to handle the public's questions.
- Formal acknowledgment that the city considers the environmental reports inadequate.
At the request of Council Member Andreas Borgeas, the council also asked City Manager Mark Scott to send a letter to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors proposing that both bodies get together to coordinate future responses to the huge project.
The county and Mayor Ashley Swearengin support high-speed rail.
The City Council vote was 6-0. Council Member Blong Xiong was absent.
The council didn't take a position on the wisdom on high-speed rail, noting that voters already have approved the project.
Council Member Oliver Baines, whose district includes downtown and much of the route's path through town, said he supports high-speed rail. However, Baines cautioned, "there are many obstacles to overcome."
Council President Lee Brand called Thursday's special meeting so the council could take a formal stand on two draft environmental reports, one covering the route for Fresno to Bakersfield, the other from Fresno to Merced.
Brand wanted City Hall to identify its concerns in case the city must go to court to protect its interests.
The meeting began with Scott Mozier, Fresno's Public Works assistant director, delivering a shorthand version of the high-speed rail report he gave on Oct. 6. This time, though, Mozier displayed about a dozen high-altitude photographs showing step by step the project's proposed route through town from the southwest to the northwest.
Mozier estimated that more than 600 businesses could be forced to move, lose part of their property or otherwise be affected because they are so close to the construction.
Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, said the number of affected businesses could be as high as 1,500, and Mozier agreed.
Geil said he supports the project but wants the rail authority to resolve Fresno's concerns.
Council members urged city officials to do all they can to minimize disruption of business. Council members want the rail authority to cover all local costs from the project, including additional city staff to handle planning and permitting.
Baines and Council Member Sal Quintero said the rail authority should try to hire locally and award contracts to local businesses.