Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Bullet train promises already broken

Attention, all you business-poaching cities in Texas. Fresno, courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, is ripe for a raid.

That’s the message that came through loud and clear at Thursday’s Fresno City Council workshop on high-speed rail.

Three high-speed rail officials came to the council chamber to pitch an old message: This really fast train is coming soon, and it’ll do everything — thrill passengers, create jobs, reinvigorate Fresno — exactly as planned.

Of course, the first chore is getting it built. Fresno is to be California’s guinea pig for cramming something this big and complex into the middle of a 21st century city.

The train’s path through Fresno starts by the San Joaquin River up in the northwest corner of town and ends way down in the southwest corner. Dozens (perhaps hundreds) of businesses are in this path. They’ve got to be booted out of the way. Hundreds of businesses are near the construction zone, and they figure to be impacted by all that work and temporarily closed streets.

The specter of all this has worried Mayor Ashley Swearengin, City Manager Mark Scott and the City Council for a good two years. Simply put, Fresno needs every job-producing, tax-paying business it can get. The private sector, not the government sector, creates America’s wealth.

With Swearengin and former Council Member Larry Westerlund leading the way, City Hall some months ago crafted a plan to minimize high-speed rail’s damage to these local businesses and the workload all this will dump on city departments.

In essence, the answer was to be a One-Stop Shop at City Hall.

The high-speed rail folks promise to pay fair-market value for property in the train’s Fresno alignment. The authority also has made vague promises about providing fair compensation to nearby businesses affected by construction. The authority also promises to make City Hall whole for all its worked connected to the project.

That’s a tall, complicated and ever-changing task. The plan was to create a One-Stop Shop at City Hall where just about anyone in Fresno affected adversely by the construction project could go for answers.

Need a new site in Fresno for your displaced business? Go to One-Stop Shop.

Need help on all the City Hall red tape? Go to One-Stop Shop.

Need to find out why that street to your malt shop is being closed by construction? Go to One-Stop Shop.

There are other factors behind the One-Stop Shop idea.

Staffing in City Hall departments has been drastically reduced during the Great Recession. Swearengin and Scott didn’t want workers in, say, Public Works and the planning department spending too much time on the high-speed rail issue on the Fresno taxpayers’ dime and letting other city business fall by the wayside.

And City Hall didn’t want Fresno businessowners in the path of the bullet train to throw up their hands in frustration and say: I’m moving to Visalia. City Hall wanted to do some handholding for these businessowners.

The folks at the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation felt the same way.

So, a deal was made. The players in this deal are Fresno City Hall, the High-Speed Rail Authority and the Fresno County EDC.

The authority would spend $4.6 million over two to three years to fund the One-Stop Shop inside City Hall. City officials would use some of the money to hire extra staffers to work just on bullet train issues and help businesses in or along the train’s path through town.

The EDC was hired to help, especially with the business community. The EDC’s first goal was to keep Fresno businesses in Fresno. If that wasn’t possible, the goal was to keep the businesses in Fresno County.

The EDC’s role was to come to the forefront when the High-Speed Rail Authority began sending “offer letters” to Fresno property-owners. These letters tell the property-owners how much the authority is willing to pay for the property. This is a big step. The arrival of an offer letter in the mail means the construction project is really gearing up. Such a letter is sure to trigger all sorts of money and strategy questions in a property-owner’s brain, especially if she has her own business on the site. The answers to these questions, in turn, have serious public policy consequences for City Hall.

This is why the three-way deal (City Hall, train folks, EDC) included a provision that requires the High-Speed Rail Authority to give Fresno a heads-up before the offer letters go out. Swearengin was to get the heads-up. The council was to get the heads-up. Lee Ann Eager, the EDC’s president/chief executive, was to get the heads-up.

This way, Eager and City Hall could get ahead of the curve. They’d know who was to get the letters. The get to the property-owners early and say: We’re here to help.

It’s all pretty involved, yet the key elements are simple. The High-Speed Rail Authority funds the One-Stop Shop; the authority keeps City Hall and the EDC in the loop on the distribution of offer letters; City Hall and the EDC do all they can to keep local businesses here and thriving; the public doesn’t get angry with Jerry Brown’s beloved train project before the first rail is laid.

Near as I can tell from Thursday’s workshop, it’s all a disaster.

The high-speed rail folks told the council that they’re sending out their first offer letters (five to ten of them) to Fresno property-owners. These letters either went out Thursday or will go out Friday.

City and EDC officials have no idea who’s getting these letters. The train folks didn’t tell them, as promised. As of Thursday, the train folks still aren’t telling.

The train folks in the council chamber on Thursday said they have no idea who’s getting the letters.

The One-Stop Shop remains nothing but a dream. The $4.6 million contract to fund it sits on a desk somewhere in Sacramento, unsigned by the train folks.

City Hall and the EDC are using their own money to do the job that the High-Speed Rail Authority was supposed to fund. Most of the new One-Stop Shop employees haven’t been hired. In other words, even if the $4.6 million contract is signed Friday, it’s too late for the One-Stop Shop to get off the ground in time to actually help the first batch of property-owners with offer letters in their hands.

Near as I can tell, the situation is this: Fresno City Hall for the past two years has been huffing and puffing about how it would make the high-speed rail folks do right by Fresno businesses and Fresno taxpayers — and the high-speed rail folks are treating Fresno like it’s something smelly on the bottom of their shoes.

Council Member Steve Brandau, who represents northwest Fresno, got the picture on Thursday.

“The high-speed rail (officials) should be here, on the frontline, showing what they can do to impress the people of Fresno,” Brandau said. “I don’t want those guys to get this thing (One-Stop Shop) fired up 10 weeks before the shovels are in the ground and then there’s a bunch of disruption. It’s crunch-time here.”

Council Member Clint Olivier added: “I’m hoping this won’t be a huge catastrophe.”

Texas — or Tulare County — loves it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *