Fresno mayor works to line up support for high-speed rail facility

WASHINGTON — The San Joaquin Valley's competition for a new high-speed rail maintenance facility came east this week, with Fresno potentially laying some tracks.

On Friday, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said she had recruited several other California mayors to endorse Fresno's bid for the maintenance facility and its accompanying jobs. The Californians were among some 230 city leaders convening for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual winter meeting.

"Here is a good spot to interact with the other mayors, and get their support," Swearengin said Friday morning.

Swearengin declined to identify the other mayors now on board with Fresno's plan, until she could get their endorsements formally committed in writing. That's Politics 101: Trust, but verify. Along with her mayoral counterparts from Modesto, Turlock and other cities, Swearengin had many similar opportunities to practice retail politics with fellow professionals.

"It's important to be engaged," Turlock Mayor John Lazar said when asked about the three-day conference.

The politicking at the 78th annual winter mayors conference that started Wednesday and concluded Friday occurred both onstage and behind the scenes.

Publicly, following tradition, President Barack Obama and some of his top advisers met with the mayors at the White House on Thursday afternoon. He promised that his fiscal 2011 budget to be issued next month will "back up this urban vision by putting an end to throwing money after what doesn't work — and by investing responsibly in what does."

Mayors, in turn, conveyed their own assessments to the president's team. These included a new 118-page report on metropolitan economic conditions that showed Modesto, Stockton and Fresno had the nation's highest unemployment rates as of November.

"People in the Valley are very upset," Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour said, adding that federal funding "has got to go to the local cities, to help get jobs."

Lazar and Ridenour drove the point home in a meeting with Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. The mayors are not necessarily expecting a second jobs-and-stimulus package, following up on a $787 billion package approved in February, but they say they want federal funds to arrive directly rather than be steered through the sticky hands of state government.

One on one, amid the conference's various meetings at the Capital Hilton hotel, mayors also pursued unique agendas. For Swearengin, this included quietly rallying support for the high-speed rail maintenance facility.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has announced plans to build the facility somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley. It would serve the system that's eventually supposed to link Los Angeles and San Francisco, and cities in between, with trains running as fast as 220 miles per hour.

The maintenance facility would be big, with Swearengin citing an $800 million construction cost and an annual payroll for about 1,500 workers.

Last Friday, Fresno city and county officials submitted their pitch, offering 700 acres near Highway 99 and American and Cedar avenues. Other communities, though, have their own ideas. In early January, for instance, the Merced City Council endorsed a proposal to seek the facility.

All told, more than 15 sites have been proposed to the high-speed rail authority. These include several near Chowchilla, several in Kern and Merced counties, several near Stockton and several near Gilroy, among others.

"The number of people that want this in their community is really impressive," Jeff Barker, deputy director of the high-speed rail authority, said Friday.

Construction could begin by 2012.

California officials also hope to obtain federal stimulus funds for the project, from $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail nationally in the federal stimulus package.