published on March 10, 2016 - 12:05 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
A recent decision by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to build the first section of the $68 billion bullet train further north appears to improve Fresno’s chances of landing the system’s heavy maintenance facility.

Several Valley communities, including sites in Fresno, Merced, Madera and Kern counties, are competing to land the coveted facility, which is expected to create more than 1,500 new jobs and infuse hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy of its host city.

In late January when the Rail Authority released its 2016 Draft Business Plan, the biggest change was a decision by Authority officials to construct the first 250-mile segment of the bullet train line between Wasco, just north of Bakersfield, and San Jose in the Silicon Valley.

The Rail Authority’s original plan called for the first segment of the line to be operating between Merced and the San Fernando Valley by 2022.

The latest plans now have the first section of line running further north and west — and scheduled to be operational three years later, in 2025.

The revision means that a site in Shafter, once one of the frontrunners in the race to land the heavy maintenance facility, will not even be on the first section of train line.

Merced also appears to have drawn the short straw in the recent Rail Authority revisions, which call for the first segment of the train line to veer west at Chowchilla.

Merced will still be included in the high-speed rail line, but the Rail Authority’s latest business plan delays the Merced bullet train station’s opening until 2029.

After the release of the latest revisions, Merced’s mayor voiced his city’s disappointment about being left out of the first segment of train line. “It almost seems like a waste of money now,” said Mayor Stan Thurston. “It’s so far away. So much can change.”

Meanwhile, Fresno officials reacted favorably to the latest bullet train plan.

Fresno County Supervisor Henry T. Perea believes the decision to shift the focus of the first segment further north gives Fresno a distinct advantage in the race to land the heavy maintenance facility.

“It puts Fresno in a better spot because now that we are heading north, it seems the competition from Kern diminishes,” Perea said.

New Fresno County Chief Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau agrees. “Getting the heavy maintenance facility would be a tremendous asset to this area and would serve as an anchor for future development,” he said.

Mark Standriff, Fresno’s director of communications and pubic affairs, said the City of Fresno has “always had a strong relationship with the High-Speed Rail Authority” and continues to lobby aggressively, along with county officials and the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, to land the bullet train facility.

“We have continued to advocate on behalf of Fresno and our desire to be the home for their heavy maintenance facility,” Standriff added. “Bringing 1,500 permanent, well-paying jobs to Fresno would provide a significant boost to our economy and draw investment and trade from all over the world.”

Rail Authority officials are still deciding where the heavy maintenance facility will be located and in addition to Fresno, sites in Wasco and Madera now appear to have the inside track to landing the plum project.

A final decision on the location of the heavy maintenance facility is expected to be announced in May or June.

But with initial construction now well underway even as the ambitious plan — the largest pubic works project in U.S. history — is still far from fully funded, and facing a proposed November ballot initiative seeking to redirect high-speed rail funding to sorely needed state water projects, 2016 promises to be a challenging year for the Rail Authority.

In the “Looking Ahead” section of its new business plan, Authority officials state: “As with all infrastructure projects of this magnitude, complexity and significance, our progress could be impacted by unforeseen challenges or unexpected opportunities. Our progress depends on many factors, some of which we will be able to control and some that we won’t.”

While Authority officials do not tip their hand in the new draft business plan with regard to the possible location of the heavy maintenance facility, they confirm it will be located in the Central Valley, while light maintenance facilities will be built in Northern and Southern California.

Workers hired to staff the heavy maintenance facility, according to the revised plan, will include “mechanical technicians, electrical technicians, supervisors, laborers, cleaners and store-house employees.”

Authority officials anticipate that by 2020, the Central Valley segment of the line will be “nearing completion” and station construction will be in high gear. Plans also call for “outfitting the heavy maintenance facility in the Central Valley.”

Between 2020 and 2025, according to the 2016 Draft Business Plan, Authority personnel will be completing test track operations in the Central Valley and taking delivery of the first train sets.

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