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Don’t count Merced out on high-speed rail facility

I was surprised to read an editorial in The Fresno Bee regarding high-speed rail and the fight between Fresno and Kern counties concerning which should be awarded the High Speed Rail Heavy Maintenance Facility. The story made it sound as if only these two counties were in the running.

According to the article, the maintenance facility will provide up to 1,500 jobs for those in the surrounding communities, but it will go only to an area that is ready to take on such a big endeavor.

Any discussion of the proposal to create that facility at the Castle Commerce Center was barely mentioned. The editorial implies the list of finalists for the Heavy Maintenance Facility has already been narrowed to only two choices.

As a reminder to The Fresno Bee from a councilman for the city of Merced, there has been no final selection of the site for the facility and the proposal to locate it in the North Valley is still very much alive.

I find it interesting that the proposed Kern County site has the advantage of having only one property owner while the Fresno site is made up of many different properties with 17 individual owners. The Castle site, like Bakersfield’s proposed site, is owned by only one party.

The Castle site would be given to the California High-Speed Rail Authority for free, similar to the way in which property for UC Merced was deeded to the university.

More importantly, Castle has the second-longest runway in California – making this location the only multimodal site proposed by any applicant.

The Castle site already has a railroad spur running through it, and with the new Highway 99 interchange being completed soon, this would allow Castle to become an ideal staging platform for the authority to not only service and maintain the trains but to build additional routes to Burbank, San Jose and Sacramento.

Lastly, the Castle site already has environmental clearance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The rail authority could break ground tomorrow if it wanted. And because the base includes a Superfund site, any environmental problems, if discovered, would be the responsibility of the federal government – not the rail authority – to fix.

Add up all these pluses and you can see why Castle was always the preferred site for the Heavy Maintenance Facility – at least until politics entered the equation.

Regardless of your feelings about high-speed rail, the reality is the project continues to move forward. Both the state and federal governments have committed funds. During the discussion about allowing the train to pass through Merced County in three locations, our community fought to make sure routes picked were responsive to our concerns.

It is important for our community to make sure that such a politically charged project as high-speed rail is not involved in trying to give something away just to court favor. The selection of the site for the Heavy Maintenance Facility, and all other technical decisions, should be above politics and based on factors related to the greatest good.

Josh Pedrozo is mayor pro tem of the Merced City Council.