Still a be­liever in what high-speed rail can do for Fresno, but los­ing some faith

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY MAREK WARSZAWSKI [email protected]­

Novem­ber left me both op­ti­mistic and pes­simistic about the fu­ture of high-speed rail in Cal­i­for­nia.

Which one? Guess that de­pends on which day.

The month be­gan with a wellat­tended open house to un­veil the city of Fresno’s vi­sion of what down­town Fresno could look like if and when bul­let trains start zoom­ing up and down the San Joaquin Val­ley en route to San Jose and Los An­ge­les.

Con­cep­tual ren­der­ings of the Fresno Sta­tion District (i.e. the 5-minute “walk zone” sur­round­ing the pro­posed high­speed rail sta­tion at Mari­posa and G streets) de­picted new and ren­o­vated build­ings, parks and open-space plazas and vi­brant street scenes.

The de­sign, we were told by AECOM se­nior ur­ban de­signer Cather­ine Tang Saez, would pro­vide a “warm wel­come” to the Cen­tral Val­ley for high­speed rail pas­sen­gers and “re­po­si­tion” down­town Fresno as the “true hub of the city and the true heart of the Cen­tral Val­ley.”

Con­sid­er­ing much of the area is cur­rently oc­cu­pied by run­down build­ings, dirt lots and streets with hardly any foot traf­fic, try­ing to pic­ture Mari­posa and G as a hus­tling, bustling hub of any­thing re­quires some imag­i­na­tion.

But it’s cer­tainly a grand dream. One that would un­ques­tion­ably ben­e­fit Cal­i­for­nia’s fifth-largest city.

Two weeks later, a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerged. A re­port by state au­di­tor Elaine Howle up­braided the Cal­i­for­nia High­Speed Rail Author­ity’s flawed busi­ness prac­tices and de­ci­sion mak­ing.

A haste to meet fed­eral fund­ing dead­lines re­sulted in $600 mil­lion in cost over­runs and sig­nif­i­cant time de­lays for three ac­tive project sites along the 120-mile seg­ment be­tween Madera and Bak­ers­field. And if the pace of con­struc­tion doesn’t ac­cel­er­ate, the state may be forced to pay back $3.5 bil­lion to Un­cle Sam.

Noth­ing in the au­dit was par­tic­u­larly rev­e­la­tory — de­lays and sky­rock­et­ing costs have been the norm since the vot­ers passed Propo­si­tion 1A in 2008 — but they did pro­vide a fresh gust of wind for high-speed rail’s many crit­ics. Fresno Assem­bly­man Jim Pat­ter­son is chief among them.

“This au­dit has shone the light of ac­count­abil­ity on where the author­ity is now, and it’s in a state of col­lapse,” Pat­ter­son said.

Read­ers know my views. I sup­port high-speed rail, warts and all, be­cause noth­ing else has the po­ten­tial to trans­form Fresno from an out-of-the-way burg an­chored with low-pay­ing jobs and high poverty rates into a more con­nected and pros­per­ous city.

Not a clus­ter of ware­houses on High­way 99, not a new dam be­hind Miller­ton Lake — noth­ing.

“We will fi­nally be a part of that eco­nomic growth in Cal­i­for­nia,” Fresno County Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion CEO Lee Ann Eager told me ear­lier this year.

Who around here wouldn’t want that? Only those who have a vested in­ter­est in things stay­ing as they are.

If Fresno ever gets con­nected to San Jose or Los An­ge­les by a 220 mph bul­let train, then our fair city would no longer be so iso­lated. (Fresno, keep in mind, is the largest city in the na­tion not on the in­ter­state high­way sys­tem.) More peo­ple would take ad­van­tage of our rel­a­tively low cost of liv­ing and com­mute to higher-pay­ing jobs.

This scares the be­jee­bers out of cer­tain peo­ple. Those who don’t care nearly as much about Fresno’s pros­per­ity as they do about main­tain­ing power and in­flu­ence.

The bot­tom line is this: If more peo­ple start mov­ing here from more lib­eral parts of the state, the worse it gets for our city’s old-guard con­ser­va­tives.

In­stead of a red is­land (pur­ple, ac­tu­ally) in a vast blue sea, Fresno would be­come more po­lit­i­cally aligned with other parts of Cal­i­for­nia. You know, the state that re­cently elected only seven Repub­li­cans to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives com­pared to 45 Democrats. (I’m not calling District 21 for ei­ther party just yet.)

A let­ter I re­ceived last month from a woman named Martha, in re­sponse to one of my Devin

Nunes col­umns, makes that point plain:

“Mr. (An­drew) Janz would ruin the lit­tle pride we have left be­cause the Val­ley is Red and we will never be Blue un­less you and he have your way. I pray to God that never hap­pens,” she wrote.

(Nev­er­mind that Fresno County voted 49.2 per­cent for Hil­lary Clin­ton and 43.2 per­cent for Don­ald Trump in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.)

For­get gov­ern­ment waste. This is what lo­cal crit­ics of high-speed rail, most of whom are staunch con­ser­va­tives, fear the most.

To be fair, not all of them. While I’ve been crit­i­cal of Mayor Lee Brand about the parks tax and open space, he is also a high-speed rail pro­po­nent. Good for him for putting the in­ter­ests of Fresno first.

Of course, it’s one thing to be­lieve in a grand vi­sion and quite another to pull it off. This is the predica­ment the $77 bil­lion project (for now) cur­rently finds it­self.

The ma­jor­ity of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers sup­ported the con­cept of high­speed rail. But af­ter a decade of bad press and lit­tle progress, ex­cept in the cen­tral San Joaquin Val­ley, a re­gion most of the state doesn’t give a fig about, would they do so again?

I’m skep­ti­cal.

TIM SHEEHAN Fresno Bee file

Tu­lare Street is closed where con­struc­tion has started for Cal­i­for­nia’s high-speed rail, in­clud­ing a down­town Fresno sta­tion.

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