Local

High-speed rail report leaves question marks on money, land for maintenance facility

The Fresno County Transportation Authority is trying to pick up the pieces from the latest round of sobering news on the bullet train.

As The Sun reported a short time ago, the High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest report says the bullet train project needs more money and more time.

But what’s missing from the report, says FCTA Executive Director Mike Leonardo, is any firm decision on the location of the train’s heavy maintenance facility.

Leonardo sent a letter dated May 2, 2019 to FCTA board members. At the heart of the letter is a recommendation that local officials come to grips with the expiration of land options on property south of Fresno.

I recently wrote a piece for The Sun about this issue.

In a nutshell, local government officials – led by Fresno City Hall – decided some two years ago to buy options to purchase several properties south of town. The properties had several different owners.

The idea was that, should the Rail Authority folks pick Fresno for the bullet train’s heavy maintenance facility (HMF), local officials could exercise those options and buy the land at a specific price. The maintenance facility would have a home.

The options’ cost: About $250,000 a year. The options’ duration: Two years.

The options expired on today. The bullet train folks still haven’t decided on a home site for the HMF.

The $500,000, now gone, came from a pot of Measure C money called the Alternative Transportation Program. A total of $25 million from this program was set aside to further the construction of the HMF in Fresno County.

Leonardo begins his letter by reviewing a previous briefing he had given the FCTA board.

“In that briefing I mentioned that HSR would be issuing a report to the legislature on May 2, 2019, and that this report would identify the location of the HMF and other ancillary facilities,” Leonardo writes. “This information was included in my report based on a discussion I had with HSR Regional Director Diana Gomez.”

Leonardo writes: “I have reviewed the report and it does not identify the location of the HMF or other ancillary facilities.” He says he has discussed the situation with Gomez, “who indicated she would be sending a letter that identifies the timeline for selection of the various facility locations.”

Leonardo’s concluding paragraph merits quoting in full.

“This is certainly disappointing although not totally unexpected. The fact that the land options for the proposed Fresno HMF expire today make the lack of a decision by HSR on the location of the HMF of little consequence. No Board action is required at this time. However, once HSR commits to a decision schedule, the Board may want to consider whether any action regarding the $24.5 million ATP funding set aside for the HMF should be taken.”

My interpretation: Fresno and the county are still in the hunt for the heavy maintenance facility. But exactly what such a facility would look like is anyone’s guess since it appears that, best-case scenario in my lifetime, the bullet train will be serving only the Merced-to-Bakersfield market.

Should Fresno get some type of maintenance facility that requires the packaging of several independently owned parcels of land, those parcels would have to be assembled through individual negotiations with the owners. That, or (I’m guessing) eminent domain.

In the meantime, does the FCTA board representing all of Fresno County want to continue sitting on $24.5 million of Measure C transportation funds tied to something as unstable as the bullet train project and its Sacramento leaders?

Or does the FCTA board want to cuts its losses and put that $24.5 million to work in a more timely, and perhaps more productive, fashion?

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