Many questions, few answers as rail officials tout system

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comDecember 13, 2012 

BEA AHBECK CASSON/bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com California High-Speed Rail Authority environmental planner Kirstin Skadberg and Jorge Renteria, in engineering, talk to John Pazin, of Merced, during the HSR open house in Merced Thursday. (12-13-12).

— Short-term pain. Long-term gain.

That was the message during a public information meeting put on by the California High-Speed Rail Authority on Thursday night in Merced.

Area business owners and homeowners have expressed frustration over if -- and when -- they'll be forced to move because of the project. (STORY CONTINUES AFTER VIDEO)

Authority officials assured the community they would make the transition as easy as possible -- and that jobs, lots of jobs, would be the reward.

"It's short-term pain certainly for those people who are being impacted by the alignment," said Tom Richards, vice chairman of the rail authority's board of directors.

"Our job is to try to reduce as much as possible that pain, no question about it," he added. "But in the longer term, I think we're going to have economic benefits in the valley that we've never seen before."

However, for some, significant questions remained unanswered.

"I want to know for sure if they're coming through our property," said John Pazin, owner of Pazin and Myers Inc., a fuel delivery business located where the authority plans to build Merced's high-speed rail station. "And when is it going to happen? Now they tell me it's seven years or maybe even 10 years."

Officials have said funding will largely determine when the state will start the acquisition process and start reaching out to individual property owners.

The process won't start before this summer, but residents should expect more informational meetings in the meantime, said authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales.

"What we want to do is start educating people as to what that process will be so they can understand it," he said. "It won't be a surprise when it does happen."

The proposed high-speed rail station and tracks will displace or significantly affect 43 residences and 46 businesses in the city of Merced, according to authority officials.

Officials plan to locate the station between Martin Luther King Jr. Way, G, 16th and 15th streets. The tracks running to the station would be installed adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad Co. line.

Officials said the project will bring thousands of jobs to the region, including opportunities for local small businesses.

The authority announced that 30 percent of all the jobs in the area would be designated for California certified small businesses. Of that, 10 percent would be given to "disadvantaged business" and 3 percent to "disabled veteran" businesses.

"It could be anything from a trucking company hauling away fill or rocks to a food company that's supplying food to the crews, to an office supply company," Morales said. "It's not just construction specifically. It's anything that's needed to support the project."

That pleased Denard Davis, owner of D&D Associates Management Consulting LLC in Merced, who attended the meeting to support the project.

"This is a project that will provide jobs for people in one of the highest unemployment areas in the country," he said. "I'm interested in getting jobs for low-income people."

At the same time, officials are looking at about 10 locations in the valley, including Merced, to build a heavy maintenance facility, which would bring with it roughly 2,000 permanent jobs. The decision should be made by 2016, according to authority officials.

If the facility is built in Merced, local resident Andrea Krebs found out last night she could lose her home or have a train running through her property.

"We need the jobs, but I'll never be able to be comfortable in my home," said Krebs, who bought her house in 2008 off Franklin Road and Santa Fe Drive. "I have a bad feeling I'm going to lose my home."

City officials say construction of the Merced station can't start until the city completes a design and zoning study, which is expected to be finished no sooner than fall 2016.

Thursday's public meeting comes on the heels of a similar meeting in Madera, where officials plan to start construction of the first section of the rail system by summer.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.


AT A GLANCE

The High-Speed Rail Authority says the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project:

• Will displace up to 213 residential units

• Will displace up to 701 people.

• Will displace up to 226 businesses.

• Will displace up to 3,564 employees.

• Will create about 20,000 jobs over five years.

• Will create as many as 2,500 permanent positions at a heavy maintenance facility.

• Will designate 30 percent of all jobs created for small businesses.

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