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Hoping to reinject buzz behind HSR, Council debate comes at project's crossroads

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The “train to nowhere” figures to deliver quite a show on Thursday at the Fresno City Council meeting.

Council Member Oliver Baines will introduce a resolution reaffirming City Hall’s unwavering support for the state’s bullet-train project.

“We should do everything we can to ensure that high-speed rail is a success,” Baines told me on Monday. “I don’t know how a policy-maker in Fresno can campaign against it.”

Baines from the dais merely needs to look to his right to find that recalcitrant legislator.

Council Member Steve Brandau over the years built a statewide reputation with his stinging criticism of high-speed rail. He hasn’t mellowed of late.

“High-speed rail is a total boondoggle – a rip-off,” Brandau told me on Monday. “There’s no way it’s going to be built.”

Fresno’s council chamber has been the scene of passionate bullet-train debate for a decade or so. Top officials from the state High-Speed Rail Authority periodically troop into town to sing the project’s praises. On occasion they bring an animated video showing what the train will do in real life if only the people have faith and patience.

City Hall has generally played ball with the high-speed rail folks and their biggest supporter, Gov. Jerry Brown. And it’s no secret that City Hall resolutions are dime a dozen. So, what’s changed now? Why are Baines and Brandau – their mutual respect and opposite political beliefs making them the council’s odd couple – gearing up for no-holds battle?

Two reasons.

One, the bullet-train project desperately needs of energy, especially the political kind. Bullet-train buzz has all but disappeared.

Two, there’s still that matter of selecting a site for the train’s heavy-maintenance facility and all the good-paying jobs that supposedly go with it.

The skeptic in me would add a third. Nordstrom is taking its sweet time in deciding whether to build its West Coast e-commerce center in Fresno (or perhaps Visalia). Maybe the retailer’s officials are having second thoughts. If Nordstrom backs out, there go City Hall’s high hopes for a quick boost to the local economy.

It wouldn’t hurt Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s legacy if, in her final weeks in office, she were to announce that Fresno is the rail authority’s official site for the heavy-maintenance facility.

One other factor must be kept in mind as Thursday approaches.

California’s bullet train project has been big news for a long time. Local, state and national media have diligently and effectively reported the drama. I envy the reporters’ talent.

But I was especially impressed with the cover story by Charlotte Allen in the Sept. 12 issue of “The Weekly Standard.”

“The Weekly Standard” is a national magazine heavy on politics, culture and opinion. It’s edited by Bill Kristol, a well-known opinion-maker in conservative circles. I subscribe to the magazine’s online version.

Allen’s piece is titled “Bullet Train to Nowhere: The Ultimate California Boondoggle.” It’s a long story, maybe in the 8,000 to 10,000-word range. And it’s a wonderful read.

Don’t be fooled by the title. Allen writes with a point of view, one of measured skepticism. But she is thorough and fair in addition to being a marvelous writer. This is no polemic.

Allen is writing for a national (even international) audience, so she must compress years of bullet-train promises and challenges into a single tale. She takes a deep breath, dives into the complexity and produces a story with many angles. The media serving the Central Valley cover the bullet train as almost a daily story. They don’t have Allen’s luxury of tackling everything as relatively new.

Allen knows all about shoe-leather reporting. She visited sites in Madera, Fresno and Kings County during heavy rains in early 2016. She talked with many sources.

Here are four samples from her story:

1.) “But the bullet-train project has moved more slowly—far more slowly—than its boosters anticipated. What I was to see consisted of a 1,600-foot viaduct spanning the Fresno River on the rural outskirts of Madera, a rundown city of 63,000 in the heart of the state’s agriculturally rich but economically parched San Joaquin Valley—a landscape that is geographically, topographically, demographically, and culturally far away from the bustle of the two coastal metropolises that the train was supposed to be designed to serve. The Fresno River viaduct is part of an initial 130-mile stretch of track through the valley that would allow passengers to travel from Madera, 164 miles southeast of San Francisco, to Bakersfield, 110 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Well, actually not quite all the way to Bakersfield, California’s ninth-largest city, with a population of 364,000, but to the edge of an almond orchard on the fringes of Shafter, a sleepy farm town of 17,000 some 19 miles to the north. That was because the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), the autonomous state agency in charge of planning and building the train, didn’t have quite the money in its budget to take the train to downtown Bakersfield,…. Critics have dubbed the high-speed rail project the ‘train to nowhere,’ and it was easy to see why.”

2.) Allen writes of “the astonishingly widespread political opposition to the train by California voters these days, even though 53 percent of them approved the idea when it was on the state ballot in the November 2008 election. The opposition spans ideological left and right and demographic rich, poor, and middle-class: from wealthy Silicon Valley technocrats horrified that the ultra-fast rail lines, with overpasses only every 10 miles or so, would wreck their leafy, bicycle-friendly upscale-suburban neighborhoods, to Latino-majority working-class towns in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley that would be split in half by the train corridors, to equestrians in the San Gabriel Mountain foothills who would see their horse trails destroyed and environmentalists concerned about wetlands destruction in Northern California and threats to wildlife and endangered plant species in Southern California’s Angeles National Forest, through which several of the proposed train routes would plow.”

3.) “Driving or—even worse—walking through the central streets of Fresno (a city of 520,000 and the unofficial capital of the San Joaquin Valley) is a dispiriting experience. Fresno’s economic heyday was the half-century that preceded the Depression, and its downtown, despite periodic fits of demolition, has managed to retain numerous fine examples of urban commercial architecture from that period: office buildings, (mostly empty) storefronts, lavishly decorated defunct movie palaces. The CHSRA’s regional office occupies five floors in one of the handsomest of those structures. But the streets surrounding it were nearly empty of both foot and auto traffic on the Wednesday I visited…. Local officials—and especially CHSRA officials—bristle at the suggestion that the California bullet train might be at least in part a jobs program for the Fresno area. But the fact remains that Fresno officials and construction unions have been among the biggest boosters of the project.”

4.) “It’s easy to mock the consternation of the bien-pensant Silicon Valley billionaires at the prospect of actually having to live with the bullet trains that have been a longtime pet project of auto-contemptuous progressives. And it’s hard, too, not to be cynical about the peninsula dwellers’ having managed to secure an exemption from elevated rail-beds for their high-end communities that Californians with less wealth and clout—such as the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley—cannot buy. Yet, in fact, the concerns of those upscale peninsula residents have exactly mirrored the concerns of middle-class and working-class California communities in the path of the train: that the close-knit towns in which they live will be split irrevocably.”

First sample – the train project got off to a bad start and has yet to recover.

Second sample – opposition to the project is growing.

Third sample – Fresno City Hall backs the project because we’re desperate.

Fourth sample – Angry high-tech billionaires are more dangerous to the project’s future than angry almond growers.

Read Allen’s story to get the complete picture.

Baines’ proposed resolution gets right to the point, one far different than Allen’s:

“Whereas, the California high-speed rail system is intended to alleviate crippling congestion on California’s roads and airports, some of the most crowded in the nation, and

“Whereas, high-speed rail is intended to improve air quality by reducing harmful greenhouse gas and other emissions; and

“Whereas, high-speed rail will connect Fresno to other regions of the state more efficiently, reducing travel times and making the San Joaquin Valley more accessible, and

“Whereas, construction of high-speed rail has already employed hundreds of Fresnans and brought work to several area small businesses; and

“Whereas, this economic stimulus will continue to be felt as Fresno will be more closely tied to the other major economic centers of the state – the Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin; and

“Whereas, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (Authority) 2016 Business Plan lays out a plan to begin operations on a line connecting the Central Valley with the Silicon Valley, offering significant benefits to Fresno as part of the first high-speed rail line in the United States, and

“Whereas, the Authority has worked closely with the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation to ensure that impacts to Fresno businesses from construction are minimized and mitigated appropriately, allowing several businesses the opportunity to expand; and

“Whereas, the City of Fresno has built a successful partnership with the Authority to plan and construct high-speed rail in Fresno.

“Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Council of the City of Fresno as follows:

“1. The Fresno City Council fully supports the location of high-speed rail facilities, such as the maintenance facility and passenger station, in or near the City of Fresno, and directs staff to transmit this resolution to the Office of the Governor and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.”

There you have it, the bullet-train business/social/political model in fewer than 300 words. It’s all so simple, especially compared to the complexity of Allen’s 8,000 or 10,000 words.

“My guess is the resolution passes 4-2,” Brandau said.

His nose-counting: Paul Caprioglio, Sal Quintero, Esmeralda Soria, Baines yes; Brandau and Clint Olivier no; Lee Brand absent.

The bullet-train project is the biggest single infrastructure project in the nation’s history, Baines said.

“Of course there are going to be hiccups,” Baines said. “But I believe high-speed rail will overcome those issues. The benefits of this project to Fresno and the Central Valley are tremendous.”

Baines said it would be “a shame for the city of Fresno” if an ideologically-driven policy-maker were to help kill the bullet train. Baines didn’t identify Brandau as the person he had in mind. No need to state the obvious.

Brandau (at my suggestion) read Allen’s story.

“I think Charlotte did a great job breaking down the different components of high-speed rail,” Brandau said. “It’s definitely what I agree with.”

There were too many components for us to handle in a 15-minute interview. But one component sticks out in Brandau’s mind.

“Here in the Valley, it’s high-speed rail against a few farmers and a bunch of bunny rabbits,” Brandau said. “But when they take that show on the road – into the East Bay, into the South Bay, into Los Angeles – the amount of problems they’ll have will be uncontrollable. The relatively small things we’ve done here in the Valley are behind schedule and over cost. And what we’re dealing with here is the low-hanging fruit. Just wait till they get to where the development is dense with businesses and homeowners.”

And, I added, politicians.

Brandau smiled. He knows that’s where high-speed rail in California will live or die.

“And politicians.”

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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