Written by David Castellon
Whether or not you support high-speed rail, it’s happening, Lee Ann Eager told a group of business people in Fresno last week.
Just drive along Highway 99 through Fresno and you’ll see portions of elevated viaducts being built, and like it or not, planning has to be done so Fresno – the starting point to construct the 520-mile rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco – can fully benefit, said Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.
Almost a decade in the making
Some of those preparations started nearly nine years ago when Fresno Works – a coalition of governmental agencies, labor and business groups – responded to a request for a site to build a heavy maintenance facility to repair and maintain the trains, she told the crowd gathered last Friday at Pardini’s Catering & Banquets for the Fresno Chamber’s Eggs & Issues breakfast.
Nine other bid packages from cities and unincorporated communities in the San Joaquin Valley were also submitted.
“And then we waited. And then the next year, we waited,” and years later, the waiting continues,” said Eager, who added the waiting game may soon end, as she heard the rail authority may finally announce its location by January 2019.
Annie Parker, a spokesperson for the California High Speed Rail Authority, said in an email that “A decision on selecting a location site is forthcoming, but an exact date and timeframe has not been determined.”
Optimism fuels future plans
Regardless of the announcement’s timing, Eager expressed considerable confidence the maintenance yard will be built on a proposed 178-acre site southwest of Downtown Fresno.
The January 2010 proposal also noted $25 million in financial incentives for site acquisition, infrastructure, utilities and construction.
Eager seemed to have so much confidence that she noted educators and business leaders are already planning for what may come beyond the heavy maintenance facility and the estimated 1,500 jobs it would create.
‘High-speed rail university’
Those plans account for new businesses supplying goods and services to the rail line developing around the maintenance facility – possibly forming a business park – and the creation of a “high-speed rail university” that not only would train people in the various jobs to work for and maintain California’s new line, but also train people working high-speed rail jobs in other states.
But that hinges on where the maintenance facility will be built.
She said Fresno Works put together a thick, stylish proposal that looked like a coffee table book compared to those presented by the other communities that included areas in the vicinity of Le Grand, Atwater, Hanford, Madera, Wasco, Chowchilla and two sites in the Shafter area, all of which want to benefit from the potential economic windfall.
Once Fresno submitted its proposal, “Those of us working on this project, we didn’t sit back and wait. For those first six years, I think I was at every – well I know I was – high-speed rail board meeting that they had every single month. They saw me there, that we were fighting for Fresno for the maintenance facility.”
Eager said she even attended last month’s meeting as part of her lobbying effort.
“The last we heard, they were waiting for the train operator, Deutsche Bahn, to help them make that decision on where that maintenance facility is going to be,” she said, referring to the German high-speed rail operator’s affiliate, DB Engineering & Consulting USA, which was awarded last year a contract worth up to $30 million to be the “early train operators,” assisting in designing, planning and implementing California’s rail line.
A global mission
Knowing the company would have a hand in selecting where to build the maintenance facility, “I was in Germany three weeks ago meeting with Deutsche Bahn, because we wanted to make sure that they knew that Fresno County was ready,” Eager said.
Deutsche Bahn even sent five representatives last week to meet locals including Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, State Center Community College District officials and Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, an ex officio member of the rail authority’s board of directors.
Deutsche Bahn officials told her the Fresno contingent was the only group from the Valley to make the trip to Germany to discuss the maintenance facility, and “It was very telling that Fresno was the only place they came,” Eager said.
“I felt encouraged by that meeting and have confidence that we’ll have a good working relationship with the initial operator,” Brand said in an email about the meeting.
In a written statement, Arambula expressed similar optimism.
“A high-speed rail maintenance facility will not only be a substantial economic boost for Fresno but also will cement our leadership on the project,” he said.
Eager said the next step is a training center.
She noted that officials are working with local community colleges and universities about planning the high-speed rail university. But as the first such institution of its kind in the U.S., officials are thinking big and have floated the idea to federal agencies of becoming a national hub for training.
Texas, Florida and Illinois are all planning high-speed rail systems.
In fact, a spur in the rail line and a test track could be added here for students to get hands-on training with actual trains, said Eager, who noted she has visited high-speed rail training centers in France, Spain and Germany.
Then there is the planning for the ancillary businesses that would use the rail line or supply goods and services for the heavy maintenance facility, which could range from parts distributors to paint suppliers to makers of uniforms for rail employees.
Eager said in Paris, such businesses had formed an industrial park around the maintenance yard she visited, and it included a FedEx distribution center, which used the trains to quickly deliver packages.
The maintenance facility, combined with the proposed training facility and ancillary businesses, could generate about 5,000 jobs, Eager said.
Despite Eager’s show of confidence, Lance Lippincott, Kings County’s director of economic and workforce investment, said he believes the proposal to build the maintenance facility near Hanford is strong.
“I didn’t go to Germany,” he said, but added that Kings County submitted a very well thought out proposal noting its location close to both Highway 99 and Interstate 5, the availability of land and proximity to larger job markets in the Valley.
Competition is strong
In addition, local officials have worked with College of the Sequoias and West Hills College to quickly launch training programs for workers at Hanford’s new Faraday Future electric car plant and for a local food manufacturer, and the same could be done for high-speed rail, Lippincott said.
“There is greater ability to respond quickly and flexibly to businesses in smaller communities,” he added.
Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, expressed similar confidence in two proposed sites for the heavy maintenance facility in Kern County.
“The Shafter and the Wasco sites are strong contenders, and we have many potential employees in Kern County,” he said.
Currently, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is putting a priority on building the Valley portion of the line.
First things first
Once that’s done, it’s estimated that Valley commuters will be able to ride the 200-mph trains to Bay Area in about an hour, while the ride to Los Angeles would last a little more than an hour.
And that’s catching the interest of businesses around the world looking to expand and start ventures in California, Eager told the audience.
“High speed rail is on their minds,” she said. “And so it has had that spider web effect where people are looking at expanding their businesses here, and it started with Fresno County being the first place [starting] high-speed rail in the entire country.
“There are companies that don’t want to locate in LA or the Bay Area, but they want the ability to get there in a relatively short time,” she said.