Merced County's bid to become home of a high-speed rail maintenance yard that could employ 1,500 skilled workers could get some competition from Fresno County.
Fresno County leaders may divert funds from Measure C, the county's half-cent transportation sales tax, to attract the maintenance yard.
The California High Speed Rail Authority is charged with building the system starting in 2012.
It already has said it wants its main maintenance yard somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley.
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But it hasn't decided where. Besides Fresno, the leading candidates include Merced, Chowchilla and Bakersfield.
The competition is intense.
None of the candidates is saying much about what its offer will be, but Merced leaders have pointed to the old Castle Air Force Base as the local option.
A task force of Fresno county officials and other local leaders has already chosen an undisclosed site along the system's route on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe corridor in rural southern Fresno County. The cost could be as much as $40 million.
Now the question is how to pay for it -- or at least for options to purchase it.
Failing to come up with any money at all could doom the county's chances, local leaders say.
"It's very important that we put our best foot forward," Supervisor Susan Anderson warned at a recent meeting of the Council of Fresno County Governments policy board.
At that meeting, the board voted unanimously to look for the needed funding from whatever source was available.
But Anderson made clear that she thinks the most likely source is Measure C -- specifically a $37 million fund reserved for "new technologies such as personal rapid transit or similar system."
That drew sharp reactions from some at the meeting.
Mary Savala represented the League of Women Voters on the committee that drew up plans for the 20-year, $1.7 billion Measure C extension that county voters approved by more than a 3-1 margin in November 2006. She cautioned against changing those plans lightly.
"I think you have to be very careful ... that this is thoroughly discussed in public, with lots of opportunity for the public to comment on what you're planning to do," Savala said.
The council's staff also suggested that part of the measure's $106 million fund for moving the Fresno's BNSF tracks to the Union Pacific corridor could be diverted to the maintenance yard project. That drew fire from rail consolidation advocates.
"Make no mistake, folks: They're not talking about borrowing funds from rail consolidation," said Tom Bailey of Fresno Area Residents for Rail Consolidation. "They're talking about flat taking."
Competition for the maintenance yard began in earnest Thursday, when the authority's board voted to put out a formal request for expressions of interest. The deadline is Jan. 15.
The authority's Central Valley regional director, Carrie Bowen, said the board is determined "to make this as competitive as possible."
Candidates will have to "identify what they can do" for the project, she said. In most cases, that will mean providing an estimated 154 acres in a shape appropriate for a train yard -- long and narrow.
Bakersfield leaders are reportedly looking for a site north of the city and west of Highway 99.
Madera County leaders are focusing on sites near Chowchilla, where the system's two main lines will eventually intersect.
Merced County officials are said to be considering a site at the old Castle Air Force Base, among others.
Bowen said the authority is likely to choose more than one site, making a final selection only after detailed environmental review over the next two years.