California High-Speed Rail “Comin’ Around The Mountain,” A Mountain Named Fresno, That Is4 min read

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It was the railroad that brought life and economic vitality to California beginning in 1862 with passage of the Pacific Railroad Act which enabled the construction of this nation’s first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, and to the San Joaquin Valley a few years later in 1872. If things pan out, it will likewise be the railroad once again, that promises to bring economic stability, if not prosperity, to the Valley and elsewhere in the Golden State tomorrow.

This time things will be decidedly different, though. And I do mean different! A high-speed rail kind of different, in fact.

Plotting the course for California HSR, is not an easy one and it’s been anything but straightforward up to this point as many would probably attest. Nevertheless, the biggest hurdle was already overcome with the passage of Proposition 1A on November 4th. Accomplishing this monumental feat was only the first step, now there are environmental, funding and alignment issues all still to be resolved. And one of these, the alignment aspect, is particularly troublesome especially in Fresno in the state’s mid-section.

But first, a skosh more history.

A second railroad – the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (or Santa Fe for short) – entered the planet’s raisin capitol in 1899. The San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad (as it was known then) was a most welcome visitor if not resident. But it wasn’t too terribly long before AT&SF; was itself the target of protest all having to do with its then (and present) Fresno routing. In 1918, efforts were made to get the rails off city streets, the alignment itself cutting the growing city longitudinally in two basically. Objectors wanted (and still want) those tracks moved. It’s been a battle some ninety years in the making.

Today, three railroads are named in the Fresno fray: Burlington Northern Santa Fe (successor to AT&SF;), California HSR and Union Pacific.

Perhaps describing the situation best is Larry Miller in his “Valley Voices” entry in the December 13, 2008 Fresno Bee. It’s aptly titled: “Big decisions on rail loom for Fresno.”

Rather than my getting into the specifics as far as what’s on the table being proposed as I’ve done this in almost exquisite detail in two previous California Progress Report entries: “Whose Line is it Anyway? Cramming Five Railroads Into Area Barely Big Enough for Two, a ‘Stretch!’ in California” and “On The Line: Westside Bypass, Eastside Bypass, Keep High-Speed Rail in the Middle. Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other? The Magic Number is Eight!” and therefore it would only be a rehashing of previous information, let’s just say if the Fresno consolidation and alignment issues aren’t worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, construction of the California High-Speed Rail system could be delayed. And this could have implications for rail – HSR and otherwise – elsewhere, not only in California, but in other states too.

Resolution may come at a meeting to be held in the city on Wednesday, Dec. 17th between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. to which the public is invited. The Fresno County Council of Governments (COG) is hosting the meeting at its downtown offices located at 2035 Tulare Street, Suite 201. Miller seems to not only understand the crux of this whole consolidation business quite well but in print is able to point out its harsh reality. He wrote: “So with roughly 70 trains per day (a number growing rapidly) now transiting Fresno and causing long traffic delays, noise and air pollution – among other problems – COG views this as a rare chance to address this decades-long nightmare.”

This issue must get resolved if High-Speed Rail in California is to move forward. But before it does, it will no doubt require agreement from all those who HSR is likely to affect and that’s pretty much everyone. This meeting provides an opportunity for consensus building and this is important. But like Miller is quick to point out, “Sometimes planners, consultants and elected officials – with good intentions – make major decisions on the public’s behalf, and only afterward does the public fully comprehend the import of such decisions.

“It would be tragic if the public were not involved from the outset. This will be the largest and perhaps most important construction project Fresno has ever seen.”

With that said, Miller and I urge stakeholders to be part of what is certain to be an historic “decision-making process.” And I do mean historic!

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

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