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Fresno officials see Spain magic, tested patience in high-speed rail hopes

Fresno City Hall

Fresno officials see Spain magic, tested patience in high-speed rail hopes

Mayor Lee Brand and a handful of civic leaders returned on Saturday from a weeklong trip to Spain where they met with that nation’s top high-speed rail officials.

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Fresno’s latest round of bullet train diplomacy is over. The next chore: Wait.

Mayor Lee Brand and a handful of civic leaders returned on Saturday from a weeklong trip to Spain where they met with that nation’s top high-speed rail officials.

The local delegation’s main goal was to make a personal last-minute pitch for Fresno as site of California’s bullet train heavy maintenance facility. There is sound logic for crossing the Atlantic Ocean to influence a decision that will be made in Sacramento, but it’s a tortuous story.

It’s sufficient to note that City Hall expects high-speed rail officials to announce this fall which company will operate California’s bullet train system. Operators of Spain’s bullet train system could get the prize. The Spaniards might then lobby in Sacramento to make Fresno home to the immense complex needed to care for the trains.

“The whole delegation made a very positive impression on the people they met,” Brand told me by phone on Tuesday. “Renfe and the city of Fresno are on the same page.”

Renfe is the state-owned company operating Spain’s freight and passenger trains. Brand was making a simple point: If the dominoes are to fall Fresno’s way for the heavy maintenance facility, cozying up to Renfe is pivotal.

Richard Caglia was part of the Fresno group. He represented State Center Community College District, where he is a trustee. Fresno City College will be busy as a training center should the maintenance facility come here.

Caglia told me Spanish officials look at California and see the Spain of 25 years ago: A stunningly ambitious bullet train proposal on the table, big economic promises from the supporters, loud cries of doom from the skeptics.

Spain rolled the dice and the result has paid off handsomely, Caglia said. The delegation rode the bullet train to other Spanish cities, always starting in and returning to Madrid. Caglia said one trip in particular would have taken six hours by car but was handled in a bit more than two hours on the bullet train.

Caglia didn’t come right out and tell me California’s bullet train is the greatest thing ever. But he sure sounds like a believer.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on our elected leaders,” Caglia said. “I want to see what they’ll do to create the next generation of connectivity.”

Council Members Oliver Baines and Paul Caprioglio as well as Fresno County Economic Development CEO Lee Ann Eager were part of the local delegation. The EOC’s organizational skills made the trip a reality. Brand said he used money from his campaign war chest to pay his tab.

Diplomacy as practiced by the Fresno contingent turned out to be hard work. Brand said the typical day started at 7 a.m. Everyone was in a hurry because, well, there was a train to catch. The destination might be Barcelona, or maybe Malaga. Officials of the local municipal government left their desks to meet their counterparts from Fresno. Handshakes, gift exchanges, question-and-answer sessions were the norm. Meetings with Spanish train officials got squeezed in here and there.

The daily return to Madrid did little more than shift the hour and location of the lobbying. Brand said he was lucky to get to bed by midnight. Sunrise, of course, meant another train awaiting the Fresnans.

“I learned a lot about high-speed rail and how maintenance yards operate,” Brand said.

For example, the Mayor learned that the heavy maintenance facility for California’s system most likely would include a manufacturing component. Brand said that could boost the facility’s job total from about 1,500 to about 3,000.

The Fresno ambassadors had more on their plate than just maintenance yards. They got to gander at Spain’s train stations. Brand said Spain’s high-speed rail stations are destination spots all by themselves – retail, entertainment, restaurants, hotels, all in one spot.

All of which means Fresno officials at home are far from finished with their diplomatic tasks. They’ve got to persuade Fresnans on the best way to spend $70 million in cap and trade funds designed for the neighborhoods around the bullet train site in Downtown. They’ve got to figure out how to integrate the reborn Fulton Street corridor into the train station vision. They almost certainly will have a role in convincing government further up the food chain to fully fund the bullet train’s construction.

But all that is down the line. The key now for Fresno is seeing an ally land the job as bullet train operator, then leveraging that alliance into a heavy maintenance facility.

Fresno’s cultural history is measured in decades. Spain’s cultural history is measured in millennia. Brand clearly fell in love with the 24/7 dynamism of Spain’s capital. He wants something like it for the heart of his hometown.

Brand said he told his overseas hosts: “I’m going to take a small bag of the magic in Madrid and bring it back to Fresno.”

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver and advisor to The Collegian, the student newspaper of Fresno State.

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