High-Speed Rail

Fresno moves forward on options for high-speed rail property

An artist’s rendering depicts a high-speed train speeding through downtown Fresno. The city and Fresno County are collaborating to promote a site south of Fresno as a location for a major maintenance station for California’s bullet-train system.
An artist’s rendering depicts a high-speed train speeding through downtown Fresno. The city and Fresno County are collaborating to promote a site south of Fresno as a location for a major maintenance station for California’s bullet-train system. Fresno Bee file photo

Fresno’s hopes to be selected as the home for a high-speed rail maintenance facility were boosted this week by the Fresno County Transportation Authority’s vote to advance up to $500,000 to the city to secure options to buy about 190 acres at the proposed site at the south edge of Fresno.

The money is coming from $25 million set aside in 2010 from Measure C, the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, as an enticement for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to choose the Fresno location over competing sites in the Valley.

The maintenance facility would serve as the central site for putting new trains into service and doing major repairs for all of the electric trains on the eventual 520-mile bullet-train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Fresno and Fresno County are collaborating to promote a site along the BNSF Railway freight tracks between American and Clayton avenues for the state’s heavy maintenance facility. But sites in other Valley counties also are vying for what is considered an economic golden goose because it could create as many as 1,500 permanent jobs and serve as a magnet for other industries providing goods and services for the train system.

Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd described the Measure C vote as a key step in Fresno’s quest to win the maintenance facility.

“I’ve been involved in very candid conversations with representatives of the rail authority who have said, ‘Listen, you’re in the game,’ ” he said. But those officials also have told him, “You’ve got a big hurdle to overcome compared to the other two or three locations that are also vying for this facility, and that is, you don’t control the land.”

Other proposed sites are under single ownership or control, considerably simplifying the process for the state to negotiate a purchase of the property it needs. The message from the state, Rudd added, was clear: “If you think you have any hope or chance of getting this, you’ve got to at a minimum have site control.”

The transportation authority’s 6-0 vote Wednesday allows the city to get that control. Fresno will pony up $250,000 to secure one-year purchase options with the property owners. The Measure C funds will reimburse the city for those deposits. If the high-speed rail authority decides within the first year to put its facility at the Fresno County site, those options would be applied toward the purchase of the properties. The options can be renewed for a second year for another $250,000 if the state hasn’t picked a site.

If, however, the state rail agency chooses this year to put the facility in one of the other counties, the price paid for the first-year option would be lost, and the city would not bother picking up the second year of the option.

The vote comes at a turbulent time for the rail authority.

Republican representatives to Congress from the Valley recently asked the Trump administration to block money that would pay to convert the Caltrain commuter rail system on the San Francisco Peninsula to electric trains – a crucial part of the state rail agency’s “blended system” plan for its high-speed trains to share electrified and upgraded tracks between San Jose and San Francisco. The project also continues to face lawsuits seeking to halt construction that is underway in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley.

President Donald Trump, who has said he wants to invest big in infrastructure improvements in the U.S., has yet to directly address California’s project publicly. But he has made comments as recently as this week lamenting that the U.S. lags behind other countries in developing high-speed trains – a position that potentially puts him at odds with congressional Republicans who are staunch foes of the rail project.

The $25 million in Measure C funds that has been set aside for high-speed rail can be used by the state, if the Fresno site is chosen, for land acquisition; necessary infrastructure improvements; planning and design; or directly related facilities. If the state locates the heavy maintenance facility elsewhere, that $25 million – minus the deposits reimbursed to the city of Fresno – would go back into the larger Measure C pot for other local transportation uses.

Publicly, the state has been steadfastly noncommittal on the heavy maintenance facility, not only on any site preference but also for when it expects to make a decision.

“No decisions have been made in regards to locations of facilities that support the operations and maintenance of the high-speed rail system,” Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the state High-Speed Rail Authority, said Friday.

The state is in the process of trying to hire an “early train” operating company that will weigh in on operational considerations during planning, design and construction – including which site is most practical for the maintenance facility. (An “early train” operator is the consultant-contractor that will be hired to help steer planning and development of the system from an operational perspective and deal with the initial ramp-up and operation of the system.)

“Once the early train operator is on board, we hope to move quickly in making key decisions,” Alley said.

Rail authority CEO Jeff Morales said in December that he hopes to have the early train operator in place by this summer.