Supporters from Valley tell high-speed rail board: Build it

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is used to getting an earful of complaints about its plans to build a bullet train through the central San Joaquin Valley.

On Tuesday, a busload of rail supporters from Fresno offered praise for the authority's efforts and reiterated their plea for Fresno to be chosen as the site for a major train-maintenance facility for the high-speed system.

About 40 people boarded the bus in the pre-dawn darkness at the Clovis College Center at Herndon and Fern avenues for the three-hour ride to Sacramento. The junket, organized by the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., was arranged after a divided Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 two weeks ago to reverse its position and oppose the project.

"What today was about was to show this (high-speed rail) board and the people of California that Fresno County and really the Valley does have a large base of support," said Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who was on the losing side of the supervisors' vote. "There's a silent majority that is stepping up."

Perea said he received a flood of emails, phone calls and posts on his Facebook page expressing disappointment with the county board's vote to oppose the rail project. "People were just outraged by that type of political decision," he added. "People expect us to do the right thing. ... We know there are some challenges with high-speed rail, but we know it's something that needs to happen."

Lee Ann Eager, president of the Fresno County EDC, said the bus trip was very important to the county's prospects for being chosen as the site for a heavy maintenance facility where the high-speed trains would be outfitted, commissioned and maintained. Key to the local interest is the potential for 1,500 or more permanent jobs expected with the facility in a county where unemployment typically runs several percentage points higher than the state as a whole.

The proposed Fresno site, south of the city, is competing with sites in Merced, Madera and Kern counties.

The Fresno contingent included a group of Fresno State engineering students sporting "I Will Ride" T-shirts, economic development professionals, labor union workers and businessmen, including Jack Emerian, CEO of ValPrint and owner of several downtown properties that are in the path of the high-speed train tracks.

"Three of my properties are being directly affected by the high-speed rail," Emerian told the authority board. "I have mixed feelings about the loss of my properties as they are occupied by tenants who will be required to relocate, but I am an avid supporter of this high-speed rail project."

Emerian added that he was disappointed by the votes of Fresno County supervisors Debbie Poochigian, Andreas Borgeas and Phil Larson to oppose the project. He said that the county board "unfortunately has a consistent record of turning important projects away from our county because of a lack of vision and leadership," citing decisions by the University of California to build its San Joaquin Valley campus in Merced instead of Fresno and the relocation of Children's Hospital Central California to Madera County.

"I hope this lack of vision by our board of supervisors will not deter you in any way from your consideration of Fresno for the heavy maintenance facility," Emerian said.

The show of support was in stark contrast to the lack of opposition speakers Tuesday. Several speakers rose to express particular concern with the authority's outreach to small-business subcontractors or audit procedures, but none spoke in outright opposition to the rail project.

It also came as the rail authority learned that the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees interstate railroad projects nationwide, announced that it had authorized construction of the 114-mile section of the high-speed rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield.

In a 56-page report issued Tuesday morning, the federal board spelled out its decision on what would be the second section of the state's planned high-speed rail system. The board last year authorized the state's Merced-Fresno section.

The board's majority concluded that California's high-speed rail plan "provides predictable and consistent travel times between major urban centers with connectivity to airports, mass transit systems, and the highway system network in the San Joaquin Valley."

The board formally voted 2-1 on Monday to authorize the construction, with board member Ann D. Begeman dissenting.

"Since the California High-Speed Rail Authority first came to the Board last year just before it intended to break ground, the majority's primary focus seems to have been getting out of the Authority's way," Begeman wrote. "But doing so here ... could have very serious consequences."

The system would, when completed, provide high-speed intercity passenger rail service over more than 800 miles of new rail line throughout California. The first phase is a $68 billion, 520-mile line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the San Joaquin Valley, where demolition work has begun in anticipation of construction starting later this summer.

Also on Tuesday in Sacramento, the rail board aimed to bolster support for the project in the populous Southern California region by adopting a policy to begin investing potentially billions of dollars in cap-and-trade money to accelerate high-speed rail development between Palmdale and Los Angeles.

Earlier this summer, the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to allocate to the high-speed rail project $250 million in cap-and-trade money -- funds paid into the state's greenhouse-gas reduction program by companies to buy credits to offset their own pollution. In addition, the agreement sets aside 25% of all future cap-and-trade revenue to the bullet-train program.

"From a construction perspective, if you can build from the ends to the middle, that's a better, more efficient way to do it," said Jeff Morales, the rail authority's CEO.

With construction starting this summer in the Valley and work being planned to electrify and upgrade the Caltrain commuter line on the San Francisco Peninsula between San Jose and San Francisco to be shared with future high-speed trains, Morales said advancing the schedule in Southern California -- particularly studying a relatively direct tunnel route through the San Gabriel Mountains between Palmdale and Burbank -- represents a significant step for the statewide program.

"We're building a system, taking it in bites, and what we see now with cap and trade is being able to do several segments simultaneously," Morales said. "Now all of a sudden we're looking at just closing gaps as opposed to starting here and ending there."

While the segment through the San Joaquin Valley is envisioned as the spine of the statewide system, Morales said that "it is conceivable that (the Palmdale-Burbank) leg could become a high-speed operating segment on its own."

The agency hasn't analyzed potential ridership, but Morales said the growing population of Los Angeles commuters living in Palmdale presents enticing opportunities. "That's something we're looking at as we would continue to build outward from there," he said.

He said that Metrolink, the Los Angeles region's commuter train system, makes the trip from Burbank to Palmdale in just under two hours. "On our line, a direct high-speed rail trip would be about 15 minutes," Morales said. "That's what really drives it home to a lot of people -- the idea that you could be at work in 15 minutes instead of two hours is a game-changer."