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Monday, Feb 03 2014 06:32 PM

City again seeks payback for high-speed rail work

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    By California High Speed Rail Authority

    An artist's conception of the bullet train speeding under the Tehachapi Pass.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The city of Bakersfield wants the state high speed rail authority to do for it what it did for Kern County and the city of Fresno -- repay it for work done on the controversial "bullet train" project.

The question is when that will happen.

On Thursday, City Manager Alan Tandy sent a letter to California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales pointing out that Kern County supervisors approved an agreement with the rail authority Jan. 14 that would reimburse the county nearly $223,000 for "pre-award tasks" through the end of 2015.

The agreement specifies the CHSRA will reimburse county staff for helping it identify buildings on county land in the path of the train and documenting property rights.

It's Tandy's second such letter to the rail authority since October 2012.

His first letter to Morales went out Oct. 2, 2012, after the Fresno City Council reached an agreement with the CHSRA netting it nearly $4.6 million.

Tandy's first letter went unanswered, so he tried again.

"Over the past several years, I and a large number of City staff have spent a significant amount of time and effort reviewing and evaluating information related to the High Speed Rail Project, in order to provide necessary feedback to the authority," Tandy wrote Thursday in his second letter, noting that despite the project's setbacks, "... one thing that remains a constant is the time and effort involved with ensuring that the potential impacts of the project are understood and mitigated."

HIGH-SPEED RAIL IS YEARS AWAY

The $68 billion train line is years from completion. It would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles through the Central Valley, with a station slated for downtown Bakersfield.

But a Sacramento County Superior Court judge in November rejected a request from the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion in bonds and ordered the agency to redo its funding plan, which could take it months or years to revise.

While the CHSRA doesn't have the money to lay track south of 7th Standard Road, City Manager Alan Tandy said city staffers have worked thousands of hours to catalog and respond to residents' questions and concerns about the train.

"I was thinking of compensating the city of Bakersfield for the excessive amount of man-hours," Tandy said. "It's fine that they pay other people. Ignoring us is the bad part."

In a statement Monday, the rail authority's CEO said his agency hopes to reach an accord with the city.

"We have worked to improve our relationship with the City of Bakersfield and our goal is to have an agreement in place soon, as we have done with other stakeholders affected by the high-speed rail program," Morales said in an email. "We look forward to working with the city as we go forward on this critical project for the Central Valley and all of California."

KEEP PUSHING FOR RESULTS

Two Central Valley officials said Bakersfield must keep prodding the CHSRA if it expects results.

"I find it not surprising that the state of California via the CHSRA has chosen to distance themselves from anyone who asks questions about their project," said Frank Oliveira, an official at Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability, a plaintiff in the lawsuit which led to the November court decision.

"It's not surprising to me that the CHSRA, even though they claim a lot of transparency and say they're promoting partnership, if they're proposed with anything that's complicated they tend to lose interest in it."

Fresno District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau said the Bakersfield City Council may have to push harder if it wants results from an under-staffed, under-funded agency.

"They don't have the money for the staffing, they don't have the money for a lot of things they were going to do," Brandau said of the CHSRA. "I think they would love to prove to Bakersfield and Fresno that they're doing a good job. I think they're having a real difficult time living up to their own expectations."

WHY REIMBURSEMENTS VARY

Cities' expectations and their reimbursements vary depending on individual situations, Diana Gomez, CHSRA Central Valley Regional Director said in a statement.

"We have several agreements with local governments and each one varies in scope and cost," Gomez said. "We are assuming we would have several agreements with Kern County and the City of Bakersfield depending on the required scope."

That's what happened in Fresno.

Fresno Public Works Director Scott Mozier said his city has actually reached four different financial agreements with the rail agency, starting with a $296,000 agreement to cover utility relocations and street modifications.

The $4.6 million agreement, approved by Fresno City Council in September 2012, is its latest.

Mozier said $3.5 million will cover an estimated 44,000 city staff work hours ranging from rezoning properties to modifying site plans.

The other $1.1 million will go to the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. to help as many as 500 businesses relocate.

Mozier said that if the city hadn't sought the money, the CHSRA would have simply paid property owners directly -- but that the city is now better equipped to personally work with business owners.

He pointed out that before the rail agency's Merced-to-downtown-Fresno EIR was approved in May 2012, the only funding agreement in place was for $296,000.

"It was after that time that they really became interested in all these other agreements and aspects of the project," Mozier said. "Right-of-way (acquisition) does not occur until after the environmental is cleared."

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