Wasco says rail authority creating problems, then evading responsibility
Abandonment of labor sticks city with $3-5 million demolition bill, Ortiz-Herandez says
Last updated 8/15/2020 at 5:42am
Wasco City Manager Daneil Ortiz-Hernandez submitted this press release Wednesday afternoon:
The City of Wasco has been engaged with the California High-Speed Rail Authority and its contractor regarding the high-speed rail project for most of the last decade. The high-speed rail will travel through Wasco alongside the existing BNSF railroad tracks. The city has been involved in every phase of this project as it has unfolded, mindful of the impact it would have on the city and our residents.
On Nov. 7, 2013, the rail authority adopted the Preferred Alignment for the Fresno to Bakersfield Project Section. In spite of analyzing a viable bypass alternative, which avoided impacts to the low-income minority community of Wasco, the authority’s staff recommended the BNSF alternative, which runs directly through Wasco, disrupting homes, businesses and existing Amtrak services. The City of Wasco brought these issues to the authority’s
attention in numerous letters, public comments, and during in-person meetings as far back as 2012.
In January 2016, the Authority awarded Construction Package 4 (CP4) to California Rail Builders (CRB) for $444 million. The City of Wasco is the only community within CP4.
The City of Wasco had been working collaboratively with the authority and its contractor, CRB, to review and bring to their attention issues and concerns associated with their construction plans and impacts the project would have on our community. The authority’s work in Wasco has created a cascade effect which is having a disproportionately high adverse effect on a community with a predominantly minority and low-income population. In addition to the impacts on businesses and residential properties along the project’s alignment, Wasco is further burdened by the socio and economic
cost the project is having on our community. The project has led to extensive staff time spent reviewing concept plans, meeting with CRB and authority representatives, seeking legal and technical counsel associated with the project, and meeting with businesses and residents impacted by the alignment. The city has also been forced to add drive time to its refuse routes because of the Poso Avenue closure. The conditions in which the farm labor housing have been left have also required that the city contract a security guard to monitor the property, pulled sheriff resources, and taken public works staff away from maintaining routine and critical infrastructure while they are addressing issues at the farm labor housing.
According to the authority’s 2012 Environmental Justice Guidance, the California High-Speed Rail Authority promotes environmental justice into its program, polices and activities to “avoid, minimize or mitigate disproportionately high human health and environmental effects, including social and economic effects on minority and low-income populations,” as stated in its first of three (3) fundamental environmental justice principles. The Authority’s duties under its Environmental Justice (“EJ”) Policy is rooted in its “Environmental Justice Guidance” manual shows that the authority has a continuing responsibility to review, analyze and mitigate its effect on EJ communities throughout the scope of its work.
A critical issue that has developed as a result of the high-speed rail project is the condition and disposition of the former Wasco Farm Labor Housing Complex.
Faced with the expense of mitigating the impact of the high-speed rail project adjacent to the high-speed rail tracks, the authority opted to financially assist in relocating residents to a new housing development in the northern part of the city rather than constructing costly mitigation measures. The city is appreciative of the authority’s contribution towards to overall cost of relocating these housing units. However, the authority did not provide funds for demolition of the old units, resulting in the blight and adverse condition the former farm labor housing complex is in today.
This was not the only cost savings the authority achieved for its project in Wasco.
Antonio Cañete, CEO of California Rail Builders, co-authored a report and presentation for the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association's 2019 Annual Conference titled “California High-Speed Rail – Construction Package 4: An Analysis for the Technical Design
Challenges, Design Evolution and Collaborative Solutions Developed for the Next Phase of High-Speed Rail Construction is Underway”. The report states:
“Through their diligent efforts, California Rail Builders successfully worked with city officials to close 6th Street. This milestone was a (sic) significant for the project, because it eliminated the need to construct the 6th Street underpass ... The closure of 6th Street resulted in significant (sic) cost and schedule savings for the project.”
Over various meetings and discussions, authority representatives sought to reassure the city that they shared our desire to have a collaborative working relationship and that they were committed to being “good partners” to ensure that the interests and well-being of Wasco and its residents were
a primary consideration. In comparison, other communities pursued lawsuits against the authority over the project and the impact it would have on their communities. The City of Wasco was led to believe that any adverse impact as a result of the high-speed rail project would be addressed and
mitigated by the authority.
Over the last several months, the city has repeatedly brought the issue of the dilapidated structures and blight found in and around the former farm labor housing complex. However, despite efforts to ensure the authority understands the magnitude of the overall negative impact relocation of the
residents has had on the community, the authority continues to indicate that they have been good stewards and met mitigation requirements of the high-speed rail project. In reality, the authority needed and benefited from relocating residents. As the City of Wasco will soon be faced with taking possession of the property from the Wasco Housing Authority, the City Council formally requested in their May 5, 2020, letter to the Authority’s regional director that the Authority mitigate the condition of the former farm labor housing complex by demolishing and clearing the site. On July 9, 2020, the Authority responded to the City’s letter, rejecting the City’s request.
With no resolution from the authority to mitigate the $5-6 million-dollar expense to demolish and clear the site necessary to remove the blight and reduce the burden on public safety, the city faces severe financial constraints to address the problem the authority created and now refuses to
The Authority awarded a $444 million contract to CRB to construct CP4, which includes the various technical segments through Wasco. According to the Authority’s Transparency & Accountability webpage (hsr.ca.gov/about/transparency/), there have been 59 change orders to CP4 totaling $132,309,648.24.
Despite the overall cost savings realized and touted by the Authority and CRB, the authority refuses to mitigate the disproportionately high human health and environmental impacts, including social and economic impacts the project is having on the City of Wasco and its residents.
In addition to the condition created at the former Wasco Farm Labor Housing complex, the authority is seeking to remove the Amtrak platform in Wasco and discontinue Amtrak service. The loss of the Amtrak service and platform will not be replaced by a stop for the high-speed rail.
The high-speed rail project, which is intended to create greater mobility, decrease vehicle miles traveled, cut overall travel times and reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the disadvantaged, minority and low-income populations of California’s Central Valley, will actually do the opposite
for the disadvantaged, minority and low-income populations of the City of Wasco. By eliminating the city’s Amtrak station stop, and requiring Wasco residents to use bus connections to access any form of train travel, this project increases the vehicle miles traveled and overall travel times to our
residents and increases greenhouse gas emissions by putting additional vehicles on the road. Loss of Amtrak service will likely be realized once the project begins operating and transporting passengers, anticipated to be 2028. However, the authority is seeking to realize additional savings
by eliminating the need to maintain the existing Amtrak platform and eliminating the construction of a pedestrian underpass providing access to the Amtrak platform in the interim. By eliminating the need for the construction of a pedestrian underpass that provides access to the Amtrak platform,
the Amtrak service would cease as soon as possible so that CRB can continue construction.
The City of Wasco has added a webpage to its website, “High-Speed Rail Impact on Wasco” (cityofwasco.org/305/High-Speed-Rail-Impact-on-Wasco), to highlight the impact the high-speed rail project has had on Wasco.