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Fresno City Council Gets Sobering Lesson on HSR

Oct 07, 2011

Fresno Bee

Imagine a war without casualties that renders 15% to 20% of Fresno's land area of little or no use to Fresnans, and does so for at least five years.

That's the price Fresno will pay for high-speed rail.

There's simply no other way to interpret Thursday's high-speed rail workshop at the City Council meeting.

Actually, it wasn't so much a workshop as an hour-long warning by Scott Mozier, Public Works' No. 2 executive.

Mozier said there are an almost unimaginable number of questions, concerns and problems for City Hall as it contemplates the shoehorning an untested 220-mile-per-hour train system onto a 20-mile diagonal running through the heart of a 21st century city that has spent the last 125 years accruing a complex web of legal, economic, political and emotional obligations, all of them immensely fragile and of prime importance to the social order.

At the end of Mozier's calmly-delivered lecture, stunned council members slumped in their chairs. Cattle on the slaughtering line have more life.

And with good reason, since the council members could read the message between the lines: Hey, guys, don't worry about a thing. You can't stop high-speed rail. Just smile and accept what happens to you.

Here's a hint of what Mozier said:

* Hundreds of businesses will be displaced.

* Many more will lose a portion of their property.

* City Hall's planning department can't speedily handle all the paperwork when businesses seek new locations.

* City Hall doesn't have enough planners to deal with one of the largest public works projects in the state's history and do the rest of the city's planning business.

* There's no guarantee the displaced businesses will stay in Fresno.

* Traffic on every street anywhere near construction of the rail line will be stopped or slowed.

Those are just some of the big-headache issues. Mozier also reviewed many small-headache issues. For example, who's responsible for graffiti abatement on high-speed rail's 30-foot sound walls? Another example: Who takes the shave if a displaced business has an assessed value of, say, $100,000 but an outstanding loan of $150,000?

Mozier's presentation was one of the best I've ever heard at City Hall. Outside the council chamber, Mozier said the actual width of the high-speed rail system isn't much -- about the same as a four-lane street. But in innumerable ways, he said, the day-to-day impacts from the construction of this system will radiate out by a mile or more in a big city like Fresno.

Fresno is about 100 square miles in size. If the high-speed rail route through Fresno is 15 to 20 miles in length, that means 15% to 20% of Fresno's surface area will be impacted to one degree or another by the construction project.

On second thought, maybe it's more if we're talking about a mile on each side of the line.

Construction is supposed to go from 2012 to 2017 -- five years. Fresno, California's fifth largest city, is the state's first big city to go through this trial by fire.

We're the guinea pig.

I sense two things:

1.) Fresno was chosen to be first so that, should public outcry put a stop to the project, high-speed rail supporters can blame the hicks in Fresno.

2.) If high-speed rail gets built in Fresno, city leaders and businessowners in coastal cities on the route can learn from our trials to better game the political process to their economic advantage.

I'm not kidding -- those seven Fresno City Council members on Thursday had the thousand-yard stare in their eyes when Mozier was done with them.