High-Speed Rail

Valley officials balk at paying for rail master plans

A San Jose lawmaker wants Central Valley cities with high-speed rail stops to develop environmentally friendly master plans for areas around the stations -- at their own cost.

Valley officials are cool to the idea, which they view as another unfunded mandate being handed down from Sacramento.

"This is totally unneeded and unnecessary," said Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. Fresno city spokesman Mike Lukens called it "a solution in search of a problem."

Introduced by Assembly Member Jim Beall Jr., a San Jose Democrat and strong high-speed rail proponent, the legislation proposes a pilot program starting in the Valley.

Part of the legislation states that "no reimbursement is required" from the state because local jurisdictions have "the authority to levy service charges, fees or assessments sufficient to pay for the program."

The bill also says cities with stops "shall collaborate" with the California Air Resources Board to develop incentives that simultaneously encourage development around the stations and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Beall, however, said the legislation is in its infancy and will be amended to address concerns. The goal, he said, is to help Valley municipalities spur development around high-speed rail stations -- not stick them with unfunded mandates.

The bill is "a work in progress," Beall said.

In December, high-speed rail officials chose a 65-mile span from near Borden, south of Madera, to Corcoran in Kings County, as the first piece to be built of what ultimately is planned as an 800-mile system linking California's major urban centers.

Later, rail officials voted to use a new federal cash infusion to extend the construction from Corcoran toward Bakersfield.

Stations are planned in Fresno, Merced and Bakersfield -- among other cities -- as well as a proposed station in Hanford.

Ultimately, Beall said he wants a bill that will give cities or local authorities the power to create infrastructure financing districts around stations to help finance transit-oriented projects.

He talked of ideas he wants to work into the bill such as creating a master plan for areas around the station and then undertaking a single environmental study that covers the entire area. It could help streamline the planning process and allow cities to build quickly around the stations, he said.

Another idea, Beall said, is giving local cities the power to tap an environmental mitigation fund associated with the high-speed rail project and use that money to deal with the loss of open space and agricultural lands. It's something that, for instance, might benefit Hanford.

He also talked of finding ways for cities and counties to count high-speed rail station areas as credits for reducing air pollution.

"It's about having the high-speed rail stations become driving forces for development," Beall said. "Creating identities around the stations. That's the intention of the bill."

Fresno officials said they're way ahead of Beall.

"We're already doing comprehensive planning in the downtown area and the surrounding neighborhoods," Fresno city spokesman Lukens said. "This only calls on us to do what we're already doing."

City officials are including the station area in its overall planning for the Fulton Mall, which has been under way for two years. The hope is that the two areas can be developed to make Fresno an attractive stop for those using the rail system.

Hanford, in the meantime, is "not all that excited about the high-speed rail" project in general -- and that includes locating a station there -- Mayor Dan Chin said.

Assembly Member David Valadao, R-Hanford, who is skeptical of the entire high-speed rail proposal, took no position at this early stage, but said he will "keep a close eye" on Beall's bill.

Fellow Assembly Member Henry T. Perea said "the intent is right in wanting to get ahead of the issue," but he said he wasn't sure legislation was the right way to tackle the issue. He's also skeptical of any state mandates.

"There's probably a better way to do it," Perea said.

His idea is to educate communities that will have stations and encourage them to work together to secure matching grants from the High-Speed Rail Authority or the state Transportation Commission.

"I think that it's important for the local community to be thinking about economic development plans for the area directly surrounding the station," he said. "This is a huge economic opportunity for all of us."

Beall, in the meantime, said he is looking for comments from local elected officials and economic development experts. He said he is planning to visit the region and talk with people about his ideas for economic development along the rail route and how the legislation can be most effective.

"We're going to try and make it work for Fresno and all the other communities of the Valley," Beall said.

The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.

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