HSR Breaks Ground on January 6

Instead of the traditional shovels in the ground, Governor Jerry Brown, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and about 40 other dignitaries signed a ceremonial piece of steel rail that will be on display at the Sacramento Railroad Museum.
Instead of the traditional shovels in the ground, Governor Jerry Brown, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and about 40 other dignitaries signed a ceremonial piece of steel rail that will be on display at the Sacramento Railroad Museum.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority) held its official ground breaking for the High-Speed Rail (HSR) on January 6 in downtown Fresno. The ceremony took place at the site of the future Fresno train station, located on the corner of Tulare and G streets.

The Authority is building 520 miles of track connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles with several daily stops in Fresno. Completion of the project is anticipated to be in 2029. Eventually, the Authority hopes to expand from Sacramento to San Diego, encompassing 800 miles of rail and 24 stations. The goal is to integrate HSR with BART, the LA Metro and the Rapid Transit Bus system that was just approved to be built in Fresno. The trains will travel in excess of 200 miles an hour, with a trip from the Bay Area to LA taking under three hours. Ticket prices are projected to be from $81 to $89.

The first 130 miles being built through the Central Valley is considered the spine of the project. The spine is where the Authority will be testing the new trains. The relatively flat and straight terrain presents the perfect conditions for this type of testing. To get to that point, four construction sections, or packages, need to be completed between Madera and Bakersfield. Building has already started on Construction Package (CP)1, which runs from Avenue 17 in Madera to American Way in Fresno. The contract for CP 2, running through Tulare and Kings Counties from Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line, is expected to be awarded to Dragados/Flatiron/Shimmick, a Spanish-led consortium which submitted the lowest of three bids–$1.23 billion–to construct the 65-mile stretch of track.

After all the bridges, underpasses and tunnels are completed for the four CPs, CP 5 will begin. This the actual laying of the track, the first of which is expected to be laid sometime in 2018 or 2019.
It is possible that some of the electric trains could be built in California. A Request for Proposal will be put out in spring, and ten companies have already expressed an interest. A contract to build the trains should be awarded in 2016.

Dan Zack, Associate Development Director of Fresno, says the HSR facility will serve as a catalyst for the “rebirth of Fresno.”
Dan Zack, Associate Development Director of Fresno, says the HSR facility will serve as a catalyst for the “rebirth of Fresno.”

Before the formal ceremony began, a tour was given of the Fresno train station construction site where the old Del Monte Plant once stood. Dan Zack, Assistant Development Director of Fresno, reminded the audience that Fresno was founded as a railroad town. When the station is built, down town Fresno will be one of the hottest shopping, eating, and entertainment destinations within a hundred mile radius.

“When this new facility is built it will mean the rebirth of Fresno,” he said.

A focal point of the tour was the demolition of the Del Monte plant that had been abandoned for 12 years. Paul Katchadourian, a small business owner with a contract doing demolition for HSR, pointed out that this was not the nice side of town. HSR will revitalize this neglected neighborhood in the heart of Fresno by transforming the entire area.

“Who knows what other industries will crop up because of HSR?” he said. “It’s amazing that Fresno is the center of this huge project. Other parts of the state or the country usually get the federal dollars, not Fresno.”

A confluence of factors apart from the HSR is transforming Fresno from being the state’s punch line to becoming its rising star. The recently passed General Plan directs half of the development dollars into the urban core. Sixteen million dollars has already been allocated to open up Fulton Mall to traffic while keeping the shopping area an enjoyable pedestrian experience. Fulton Mall will become the gateway to the city, as it is only two blocks from the HSR Fresno train station. According to Zack, HSR will nicely tie together downtown, the bus transit system and the train station.

According to Dianna Gomez, Central Valley Regional Director for the HSR, this is not your grandmother’s train station. It is envisioned to be designed like a campus, with a concourse spanning over the tracks. There will be several entrances to the campus along with shopping, eating and of course, trains. An area that is now considered city blight could end up becoming one of the hottest meeting hubs in the state. Projected opening of the Fresno Station is 2022, when the Merced to Burbank Airport line begins operation.

Zack predicts that, because of HSR, Fresno will become a destination town rather than just a transit location. He envisions tourists coming to Fresno to take advantage of the vibrant shopping, eating and entertainment scene all within walking distance of the station.

Protesters assembled with signs pointing out HSR’s drain on the budget.
Protesters assembled with signs pointing out HSR’s drain on the budget.

The economic benefits have already been felt. HSR has created 632 jobs and eventually 20,000 people will work on the system. As a condition of receiving the $3 billion in federal stimulus money, work on HSR had to start in the disadvantaged Central Valley and have at least 30% small business participation in all contracts. According to the Authority, as of September 2014, 40 small businesses have active contracts valued at $296 million on CP 1, the 29-mile stretch from Madera County to Fresno County.

Many of the small business owners and workers were on hand at the ground breaking to give their testimonies. Jill Kroeker with J. Kroeker Inc., said that her company is not just providing jobs, but careers. By being awarded the job of recycling, she has had to hire and train more employees who will keep the skills for the rest of their lives.

Katchadourian said that his company started with eight employees but now has 25 since he received the HSR bid for demolition. He decided to offer those jobs to those who had been looking for work for a long time. He partnered with Calworks to find the right people and train them in asbestos cleanup, hazardous material clean up and to be supervisors.

“These people are now working who wouldn’t be without HSR. All they needed was an opportunity,” he said.

Ashley Swearengin speaks at the HSR ground breaking event.
Ashley Swearengin speaks at the HSR ground breaking event.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin kicked off the formal celebration by thanking Fresno for its continued support of HSR. She thanked the city for its perseverance of a project that had been 30 years in the making and congratulated Fresnans on being in at “the beginning of the nations’ first HSR project that promises to connect Northern, Central and Southern California like never before.” She concluded by saying, “Now let’s get it done.”

Dan Richard, chair of the California high Speed Rail Authority, who emceed the event, hoped that everyone had had a long and dreary car ride to Fresno. He said that this ceremony was the demarcation between talking about HSR and really doing it.

“Now we build. We are entering a period of sustained construction on the nation’s first HSR system for the next five years in the Central Valley, and in the decades beyond that we will be building across California.” Richard continued, “And today is also a celebration of the renewed spirit that built California.” He explained that it will spur the economy, clean the environment and connect the state.

Richard introduced two university students who chair the #iwillride campaign. The Millennial generation makes up the most ardent supporters of HSR–especially in the valley. For the younger generation, HSR represents opportunity and the ability to come back home after college and find high-quality jobs. The university students expressed their gratitude to the supporters of HSR for investing in their future. They thanked the HSR supporters for creating a more connected California and providing the opportunity to live, grow, and work right here where they were born.

Representative Jim Costa likened the HSR to the transpacific railway completed in 1869. He reminded the audience that all great projects had their detractors: The State Water Project, championed by then Gov. Pat Brown, passed by only one vote; The Golden Gate Bridge endured 2700 lawsuits before finally persevering; BART almost didn’t get built at all. Federal Railroad Administration Chief, Joseph Szabo, said that once these major projects were built, “the naysayers were all long forgotten. It pays to be on the right side of history.”

Governor Jerry Brown was the last to speak and quickly discounted any doubts that the money would be found to finish the project.

California Governor Jerry Brown
California Governor Jerry Brown

“California generates over two trillion a year. For a train that has a 100-year life span, that’s $300 trillion, making $68 billion very affordable. It’s not that expensive. We can afford it. In fact we cannot afford not to do it as we look at building a future that really works,” Brown said.

“My inclination is not to spend anything,” Brown continued. “But on the other hand I like trains. I like clean air. And I like to enjoy the comfort of trains. I like to get up and walk around and shake hands. You can’t do that in your little car as you look in your rear view mirror.”

Brown also said that he would like to protect as much agricultural land as possible. HSR critics complain about the rail cutting through prime agriculture land but have not mentioned how much farm land has been paved over by highways, gas stations and roadside developments. Szabo said that two sets of railroad tracks can carry as much traffic in an hour as 16 freeway lanes. According to the public Policy Institute of California, the state’s rate of growth sets it apart from the rest of the developed world. In ten years California’s population will surpass that of Spain, one of the many countries with HSR crisscrossing its territory.

“We have to have an efficient cost-effective, environmentally responsible way to move them,” said Szabo.

Construction of a bridge over the Fresno River in Madera has already begun, so this celebration was a symbolic beginning of the HSR project. The groundbreaking and dignitaries’ speeches ignited a fire and passion for the future of California that will not be easily extinguished. California is a pioneer in innovation, the environment, technology, social issues–everything, said Lisa Alley, Deputy Director of Public Affairs.

“Things happen in California. Texas and Florida are on our heels but we will be the first to build a high speed rail and I’m proud of that,” she said.

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