California's High-Speed Rail Plan Is in Jeopardy, But It's Hiring Workers Anyway

Officials say they will move with a worker training program, despite a court ruling that stopped just short of invalidating the line.

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Reuters

Late last week, California's emerging high-speed rail line received the latest challenge to its existence, and perhaps the most severe. A state superior court judge ruled that the rail authority failed to identify the funds it needs to complete the first phase of construction, and to receive full environmental clearance — oversights that violate the 2008 voter referendum approving the project. The judge stopped short of invalidating the line, but the problems must be addressed.

If project opponents thought the ruling would halt progress on the line, however, they were quite mistaken. Tutor Perini Corporation, which won the bid to construct the initial segment in the Central Valley, is opening an office in the Fresno area as early as next week, says Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Workforce Investment Board. Meanwhile, the board is collecting applications for a new high-speed rail worker training program that's scheduled to begin mid-October.

"They're hitting the ground running," says Konczal of Tutor Perini. "All the work of clearing land, moving-in graders, testing the soil, removing bad soil, putting in different soil — all of that's starting right now."

The training program was made possible by a multi-year, $1.5 million infrastructure employment grant issued by Governor Jerry Brown. The program, which will groom several hundred high-speed rail apprentices, has already attracted a great deal of interest. In the first three weeks of review, some 2,000 people have applied to be in the first class of 25 workers, says Konczal.

While much of the preparation work will be similar to any transportation infrastructure project — with manual laborers, engineers, and soil experts clearing and approving the grounds — there will be some notable differences. The high-speed rail bed itself, for instance, can't be gravel, because the bullet trains would transform the pebbles into projectiles. Instead, workers will be laying two long carpets of sleek concrete.

"Two ribbons of concrete — think of a major, major, major sidewalk, but a perfect sidewalk — are going to be laid the length of the rail line," says Konczal. "We'll have to keep kids from trying to skateboard on it before they put the rails on."

About 20 percent of the prep work, in his estimation, will be the type of very unique high-speed rail construction for which there's no current template in the United States. That's where Central Valley workers will draw guidance from whichever international rail company ends up building the train sets. Konczal says all the operators he's reviewed have stellar training programs (though he thinks Renfe, out of Spain, may be the "most together").

"Once that train-set is chosen," he says, "they will be in a position to come in and start cross-pollinating here with us, the workforce board, as to how to get people — no pun intended — up to speed on how to deal with these materials."

The financial sector remains hopeful that the project — yes, pun intended — remains on track. Despite this week's ruling, the brokerage firm Sterne Agee called itself "cautiously optimistic" [PDF] about the line's engineering and construction potential. Governor Brown seems to be in a similar camp, announcing on Monday that he believes the ultimate outcome of the court ruling "will be positive."

For now, Konczal is just excited for what the project means to the Central Valley. There are, of course, farmers upset that they will lose some land, but there are potential economic advantages for the region, too. And there are the temporary construction jobs set to begin work soon. And the 2,500 permanent jobs that will come with a new maintenance yard in the near future. And the little-mentioned boost to Amtrak service in the region (currently Amtrak runs on the old Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, which keep trains from reaching anywhere near top speed).

"The single largest infrastructure project in the history of the state of California is coming through the poorest parts of the state of California, and we're going to be sure that our residents on the job fronts take full advantage of this opportunity," he says.

Top image: An artist's rendition courtesy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority shows a high speed train station in Fresno, California. (Reuters)

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