The Fresno City Council last week helped the bullet train project take another step forward.
But I sense that the future belongs to longtime project critic Steve Brandau.
The council on May 10 gave its blessing to spending another $250,000 from Measure C on options to buy property south of Downtown for what could be the train’s heavy maintenance yard.
The vote was 5-1-1. Council Member Brandau voted no. Council Member Clint Olivier was absent.
Local government and development leaders for several years have been lobbying High-Speed Rail Authority officials to pick Fresno as home to the maintenance yard. Other Valley communities are in the hunt, too.
The local media have reported on the campaign in detail. To give you a bit of context, the maintenance yard could deliver up to 1,500 good-paying jobs. Local officials hope the neighborhood (sometimes called the Reverse Triangle) becomes the Silicon Valley of the North American high-speed rail industry, a magnet for complementary companies and entrepreneurs.
The key at this stage is securing centralized control over enough land – perhaps several hundred acres – to ensure that Fresno has a powerful voice when speaking to the committee that picks the maintenance yard winner.
The land that comprises Fresno’s preferred site has a handful of individual owners. How to lock up this land? Old-fashioned options to buy at a certain price within a certain time.
That requires negotiation and money. The negotiations for back-to-back one-year options were completed early last year. The money comes from a pot of $25 million from Measure C earmarked for maintenance yard land purchases and infrastructure improvements.
The plan for Year One was to spend $250,000 on options. The hope was that High-Speed Rail within those 12 months would pick Fresno. If not, the plan for Year Two was to repeat this process.
The council on May 10, 2018 embarked on Year Two.
As to who owns the parcels and how much the owners get in the way of option money, I refer you to a story I wrote last September for CVObserver ( http://www.cvobserver.com/high-speed-rail/fresno-locks-down-options-on-land-for-hsr-maintenance-yard/).
That brings us to last week’s council meeting and Council Member Brandau.
The consent calendar item before the council was a routine spending resolution. Brandau pulled the item for more discussion with Economic Development Director Larry Westerlund.
Brandau’s questions centered on how such options work. Of course, he knows full well how options work in general and what this particular option is designed to accomplish. In addition to being a council member midway through his second term, Brandau also represents City Hall on the Fresno County Transportation Authority board. The FCTA board oversees the spending of Measure C funds.
Brandau was using obvious questions and Westerlund’s equally obvious answers to drive home his displeasure with this particular use of taxpayer money.
One exchange made this clear.
Brandau asked Westerlund to explain what the property owners get to do with the Measure C money they receive. Westerlund in essence said the money belongs to the property owners. Should the option be exercised, the upfront money would be applied toward the purchase price.
In other words, there’s the distinct possibility that, should High-Speed Rail officials fail to select a maintenance yard winner by this time in 2019, Fresno will have spent $500,000 on land options and received nothing tangible in return.
“That ($500,000) won’t be coming back to us,” Westerlund said.
Brandau replied: “To me, that’s money lost.”
This exchange could take us down many paths of debate on the controversial bullet-train project. I close with two of them.
First, I called Brandau several days after the vote. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the local debate on maintenance yard land options greatly intensifies should the yard site still be an unresolved issue in mid-2019. Brandau is passionate about spending scarce Measure C money on fixing current roads or building new ones (i.e. Veterans Boulevard). What’s left of that $25 million for the proposed maintenance yard could be put to put to better use on such practical projects, Brandau told me.
Second, if such a debate does occur in Fresno next year, I wonder if it would mean the unstoppable fraying of the local coalition supporting the bullet train.
When does a junior ally transition to a mark?