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High-speed rail project loses Fresno as supporter

After two county supervisors board meetings, the board voted to withdraw support for the high-speed rail project. Since 2007, Fresno had been the project’s number one supporter. No one expects Fresno’s actions today will stop the project but it delivers an emotional blow to the rail project.

County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian brought forward the resolution and she, Chair Andreas Borgeas and Supervisor Phil Larson voted to pass the resolution that stated there were major inconsistencies between the promises made to the people and what was being planned today. It was done in order to provide direction to staff. Chair Andreas Borgeas also proposed that an Amicus brief be filed in the Tos/Fukuda/Kings County lawsuit and it passed with the same votes.

Supervisors Henry Perea and Judy Case McNairy voted no. Perea has been a strong supporter of high-speed rail for years and Case-McNairy had objections to the project regarding spending and debt but in the end she was concerned about public transportation in the future. She supported another resolution apparently putting forth questions to the Rail Authority but not pulling support. That resolution was not made public at the time of the meeting, even the supervisors had to take a five minute break to read what it included.

Chair Borgeas thought it was about integrity about the public’s vote for bond measures. He added to Debbie Poochigian’s resolution to request that the legislature vote to put the HSR project back on the ballot in a special election. He also put forth a separate request for the board to file an Amicus brief, which translates to “friend of the court.” This is a document filed with the court giving the judge another view to consider. The gist of the amicus brief would outline the promises made in the bond measure and how they haven’t been followed. It does not make Fresno a party to the lawsuit, there are no costs and there is no legal liability promised Chairman Andreas Borgeas.

The Amicus Brief vote, which passed 3-2, was the same distribution as the Poochigian resolution. It directed staff to prepare the amicus brief. It will then go back to the Supervisors for the final tweaking before release to the court.

This meeting was an extension of the July 15th, 2014 meeting. It was in two parts for several reasons. There wasn’t enough time since the first meeting lasted about 4 hours. One of the members, Judy Case McNairy just returned from vacation and was unaware this was going to resolution was going to be presented. She wanted time to study it. Also Tom Richards, a well-respected HSR board member, in fact Fresno’s representative, was unable to attend the meeting of the 15th and asked for a delay so he could attend. Richards attended this meeting but CEO Jeff Morales did not. Morales had attended the meeting on the 15th. Richards spoke about how the project had improved over the years pointing out that under the leadership of Governor Brown they increased staff from the 17 people they had. Today’s number is close to 125 people. He thought they would eventually find the money due to the Monte Carlo Modeling the Authority did in the last business plan.

Mike Brady attorney for the Tos/Fukuda/Kings County lawsuit was in attendance and made a brief statement as well as commented on the Amicus Brief. Brady said it was a good time for Fresno to file it. He offered while the court can accept or reject the brief, they pay special attention to governmental bodies since they represent their constituency. Brady said it was good timing since part 2 of the Tos/Fukuda/Kings County case was about implementation of the voter’s promises. The key points in the suit will be about: Trip Time: will train make the time promised from LA to San Francisco in 2 hours and forty minutes, will the train require a subsidy and is the move to a blended system to some areas of the route be considered a violation of Prop 1A. Prop 1A required that the system have separate tracks so it could make the speeds required necessary to make the time. Instead the train will have to share tracks with commuter rail, which will slow down the speed and reduce over all ridership since it drops from 10-12 trains per hour to 2-4 trains per hour.

Objectors against the passage of the resolution felt that the project was needed for the future of Fresno. They advised to look at this transportation project compared with just having roads widened. The cost and time of improving infrastructure would be expensive and take incredible amounts of land and time. They also feared rejecting the rail project would be like giving up the opportunity to develop the University of Merced. They also feared losing the 1500 jobs that the heavy maintenance facility would bring to Fresno if the county passed the resolution. Many people who spoke in favor of passage of Poochigan resolution were not against the concept of high-speed rail, only against the implementation and the plan today since it resembled nothing like what was on the original ballot.

Remaining parts of the Prop 1A case, a civil case, is going to trial this fall. Brady said most courts look with favor on briefs put forward by governmental agencies because it reflects the will of their constituency. The exact three issues that are in the next part of the lawsuit match Fresno’s concerns about the promises of Prop 1A not being kept. That suit is focused on implementation issues. Will the authority be able to transport a passenger in 2 hours and forty minutes? The second issue is whether the operating revenues are sufficient as not to require a subsidy, which is strictly forbidden by Prop 1A. And last the case will review if the voters got what they were promised using a blended system- added in the April 2012 business plan. According to Mike Brady, they were promised one track north and one track south exclusively for the high-speed train. The Authority changed the project and now part of the tracks will be shares with regular commuter rail. It makes it impossible for the HSR to meet headway and trip time speed as required in Prop 1A.

Again the actions of Fresno today is not a game changer for the project but it sends a clear message.

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