FRESNO — With at least 1,500 jobs — and perhaps thousands more — at stake, a maintenance station for California's proposed high-speed rail system is the object of increasingly intense competition among San Joaquin Valley communities.
Up and down the valley — in counties where the economy has been derailed by high unemployment, real estate woes and farm-water shortages — 13 sites are being pitched to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Only one can be home to a heavy maintenance facility where the futuristic trains would be outfitted, tested, repaired and stored.
"This is an economic game-changer," Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea said. "This will be the biggest economic development project this county has seen in the last 40 or 50 years." A 2008 economic study estimated that $6 billion to $16 billion would be spent in the valley to build the train system.
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Perea and officials from Atwater to Bakersfield say that investment and jobs at the maintenance facility can go a long way in helping counties diversify their labor forces beyond an agricultural base.
"This will span all stratas of employment, everything from janitorial all the way to computer technicians," said Ronald Brummett, executive director of the Kern County Council of Governments. "There will be blue- collar jobs, white-collar jobs and some very technical jobs — the entire gamut of people."
So far, a $45 billion system of bullet trains that can speed passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2.5 hours remains firmly on the drawing board.
Funds rolling in
But a recent $2.25 billion injection of stimulus money for California's high-speed rail plans, combined with the $9 billion or so approved when voters passed Proposition 1A in 2008, gives officials more reason than ever to believe the 220 mph dream will come true.
"It's coming," Perea said. "The very first thing that's going to be built is this maintenance facility ... and the competition is on."
The heavy maintenance facility would support operations on the Merced-to-Bakersfield section of the high-speed line, part of the first phase of the system between San Francisco and Los Angeles-Anaheim.
Smaller terminal maintenance and storage facilities are being planned near San Francisco and Los Angeles for first-phase operations.
California's application for the stimulus money earmarked the largest chunk of money for the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim run.
The Southern California segment has a great deal of financial support and is well along in the planning and approval processes.
But the rail authority's latest business plan indicates that the valley stretch of the system — the only area where the trains can reach top speed — would become operational for paid passenger service in 2019, perhaps six months before the rest of the first phase.
Later segments of the system would stretch north from Merced to Sacramento and south from Los Angeles to San Diego through San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Fresno County is putting its weight — and $25 million in transportation funds — behind a site south of Fresno in the high-speed rail corridor that parallels the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line.
While Fresno officials are confident, so are backers of other sites.
3 choices in Merced County
Three have been proposed in Merced County, including one at the former Castle Air Force Base near Atwater.
Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo and Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs this week are asking the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to get behind Merced's pitch for the maintenance shop at one of two sites. The Merced officials sent a letter to their Stanislaus counterparts that reads:
"The location of both Merced County sites will allow your citizens easy access to new, well-paying jobs that will benefit the entire Northern San Joaquin Valley."
In Madera County, where several prospective routes remain in consideration for the trains, officials are pitching five sites, mostly near Chowchilla.
The Kings County Economic Development Corporation has proposed a site southeast of Hanford, while property near the rural Tulare County town of Allensworth has been suggested by a developer.
In Kern County, two sites have been proposed — one near Wasco, the other near Shafter.
Not only are the project's 1,500 or so jobs coveted, so, too, are the economic ripples as more people have more money to spend in a community. In its proposal, Fresno County estimates the annual payroll at the maintenance station at more than $110 million.
Other officials have even more ambitious hopes. As California aims to take the lead in high-speed rail in the United States, some backers see the potential for the train builder to construct a factory near the maintenance hub rather than ship equipment overseas.
All told, with jobs from the maintenance station and related industries, Perea said the total payroll effects could be more than $200 million a year.
It's unclear how soon such economic benefits could be realized. The California High-Speed Rail Authority offered no firm goal for when the maintenance hub would be operational.
The authority's business plan indicates that construction could start in 2012. For the Merced-to-Bakersfield segment, nearly $900 million is programmed for buildings and structures in 2012 and 2013.
In addition to touting the advantages of their sites, many of the proposals include economic lollipops dangled in front of the rail authority.
In Fresno County, it's $25 million from the county's half-cent sales tax for transportation projects. One of the proposals in Madera County comes with free land.
$1 lease at Castle
Officials in Merced County aren't putting up cash, but they are offering the rail authority a long-term lease at $1 a year at the Castle Commerce Center, formerly the air base.
"We believe that will save the authority a ton of money," said Dr. Lee Boese Jr., a dentist who is co- chairman of the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee.
The Castle site and a second site near Highway 99 and Mission Avenue south of Merced have ample room for industrial development.
But Boese said Castle has the advantage of extensive environmental study because of its past use by the Air Force.
"This thing is going to be a massive industrial structure, and we couldn't think of anyplace else in Merced to put something that's going to be as loud and as dirty as this," Boese said.
Another thing Fresno and Merced counties say they have going for them is unity of purpose within their communities.
Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., said recently that he's never seen Fresno County agencies so unified behind a project.
"We're not going to let what happened with UC Merced happen this time," Geil said, referring to the perception that local disharmony contributed to the state's decision 15 years ago to put a new University of California campus in Merced County instead of Fresno County.