The art of power politics will be on full display this Friday at Fresno Council of Governments headquarters.
COG officials need to find a way to convince Donald Trump of their undying love for the man and his administration. At the same time, both Trump and COG officials know that COG has no choice but to live in a state that loathes the President.
The immediate issue is COG’s One Voice Steering Committee. This group of local elected officials, business leaders and COG staff makes an annual trip to Washington, D.C. to lobby for federal dollars. The committee always brings a long list of big infrastructure and economic development projects in dire need of funding.
The 2018 One Voice Washington, D.C. trip is slated for April 21-26. COG officials have narrowed this year’s wish list to eight projects. COG’s Policy Advisory Committee on Friday will decide whether to approve the list. From there, the list will go to COG’s Policy Board.
The Policy Advisory Committee consists largely of city managers. The Policy Board consists largely of mayors.
All of the proposals on COG’s 2018 wish list are interesting. Three stood out for me.
1.) The administration of Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and Fresno City Council Member Steve Brandau want nearly $45 million to complete the Veterans Boulevard project.
City Hall’s written pitch to COG says: “Each day, thousands of residents face delays due to inadequate infrastructure for an area which has seen significant growth in the last 20 years. These delays clog roadways, negatively impacting residents’ commutes and slowing goods movement through the region. Traffic impacts response times for emergency responders such as police, fire and paramedics. School buses get caught in the queue and delayed.
“Investing in Veterans Boulevard demonstrates a federal commitment to transformative infrastructure which will improve traffic flow and goods movement, facilitate pedestrian travel and stimulate the economy through local job creation. The project will also improve east-west connectivity between north Fresno and the rural communities west of Highway 99. To truly rebuild America’s infrastructure, funding must be identified to complete Veterans Boulevard.”
Remember when Trump the civilian came to town in mid-2007 to check out the failed Running Horse project in West Fresno? If Running Horse had been located west of 99 and north of Shaw Avenue, the area Jacky Parks calls “Forgotten Fresno,” Trump would still be fighting traffic jams in an effort to get back to his jet at Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
2.) The Fresno County Board of Supervisors wants $30 million to transform a 4.7-mile stretch of Millerton Road from a two-lane country lane into a modern four-lane thoroughfare. The County’s pitch says the stretch goes from North Fork Road to one mile west of Auberry Road. What we’re really talking about is Friant Dam to the Table Mountain Casino area.
The County says this project is a win-win-win.
“The recreational activities at Millerton Lake State Park result in a considerable contribution to the local economy,” the written pitch says. “The level of tourism greatly increases traffic flows and congestion, but the negative effects of this traffic influx will be lessened by the proposed road improvements….
“Several housing and commercial developments are currently in various stages of planning and construction along Millerton Road. Increased connectivity and accessibility – along with the other developments currently underway – will increase commercial opportunities and economic prospects. The improvements which will be constructed as a part of this project will better tie the foothill area to the Fresno/Clovis metropolitan area….
“Millerton Road is the primary corridor that the Table Mountain Rancheria tribe members rely on to access their lands and governmental operation. It is used by more than 1,300 employees of Table Mountain Rancheria and thousands of patrons, and is integral to their economic success.”
The modernization of Highway 41 in the late 20th century was pivotal to the growth of North Fresno and the success of River Park shopping center. Sounds like the widening of Millerton Road in the early 21st century would have a similarly transformative effect in the semi-wilderness a bit north of Fresno-Clovis.
Supervisor Nathan Magsig is this proposal’s main champion.
3.) Then there is the breathtaking pitch for a High-Speed Rail Training Facility.
The proposal comes from three of the region’s top workforce training leaders: Lee Ann Eager, chief executive at the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.; Brian Angus, chief executive at the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission; and Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Development Board.
Why is their pitch breathtaking? If I’m reading it correctly, they want three-quarters of a billion dollars. From their pitch: “Making funding available for the Community Services Block Grant in the amount of $750 million in the FY’18 budget (is) critical for job readiness programs and other services that lead to self-sufficiency.”
The vision of Eager, Angus and Konczal isn’t simple. In a nutshell, they see the training facility as key to putting a big dent in the region’s high level of poverty. More importantly, they see Fresno/Fresno County poised for a leadership role in what is claimed by some to be America’s newest and most promising mode of transportation.
“In Fresno County,” the pitch says, “the High Speed Rail project is well underway. This is a monumental project that will require a skilled labor force to construct and maintain the nation’s first high-speed rail system…. Because high-speed rail is new to the United States, it is necessary to train workers not only to build but also maintain the high-speed rail line in a world of ever-changing technology. Fresno County has both the land and the population to create a high-speed rail educational center not only for the State of California but for the entire country.”
The pitch notes that the proposed training center would be part of much larger collection of locally based assets with ties to high-speed rail. These assets could include the bullet train’s heavy maintenance facility, a transportation operations facility and an industrial park for companies providing goods and services to the bullet train.
Say Eager, Angus and Konczal at the end of their pitch: “We are asking for your support to make Fresno County the hub for high-speed rail training for the United States.”
Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines is among this proposal’s champions.
The most important context to April’s One Voice trip is President Trump’s recent State of the Union address. He supports a plan to stimulate at least $1.5 trillion in spending to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.
The definition of “infrastructure” and the plan’s details are to come.
There’s always money in Washington, D.C. for infrastructure – if you’re well connected. Hence the yearly nature of the One Voice contingent’s lobbying efforts. But when the President starts bandying about the trillion figure, well, it’s time to dream big and employ all of your persuasive powers.
Does Fresno have a chance?
The proposals listed above are definitely worthy of funding by the feds. Central Valley residents would be most grateful to the President were he to send big checks our way.
But so would a lot of folks with infrastructure needs in other states. And many of those states don’t have top elected officials and a huge electorate doing everything they can to undermine the Trump presidency.
Donald Trump has no chance to win California in the 2020 presidential race. But he can win the same states he won in 2016 and pick-up one or two near misses. One trillion bucks can shore up old support and win new loyalties.
This is the reality Fresno’s One Voice contingent will face when knocking on Trump Administration doors in April.
COG officials are well aware of the diplomatic challenges ahead of them. As I’ve already noted, the One Voice wish list heading to the Policy Advisory Committee on Friday has eight projects. But the One Voice team in April will be personally lobbying for only seven.
The eighth, according to the COG staff report, is a request by the City of Coalinga to “support state rights and their ability to regulate the legalization of commercial cannabis without federal government interference.”
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, is dead set against recreational marijuana and the states that embrace it.
Per the COG staff report: “Recognizing potential conflicts of interest, Coalinga Mayor Nathan Vosburg proposed, and the Steering Committee accepted, his offer to separate the commercial cannabis issue from the other priorities and to not include it among the speaking points for the One Voice delegation; however Committee members approved using Fresno COG lobbyist Simon and Company to broker and coordinate separate meetings for interested delegates regarding commercial cannabis.”
My suggestion for Fresno’s One Voice delegates when speaking with Trump Administration officials: Remind them that Devin Nunes is a Valley guy.