Two of the more than 45 agenda items that went before the San Benito County Board of Supervisors at its June 14 meeting concerned transportation, one in the future and one in the past.
Brent Barnes, county resource management agency director, presented agenda items regarding the California High Speed Rail Planning & Public Engagement Reimbursement Agreement, as well as the possibility of reintroducing the expired Abandoned Vehicle Abatement fee program.
Barnes first spoke of the opportunity the future high-speed bullet train might present to the county. According to the agenda, the California High Speed Rail Authority is in the planning stages of establishing a high-speed rail (HSR) link between the San Francisco metropolitan area and the Los Angeles/Orange County metropolitan area. The project will require several years of planning, design, engineering, and public engagement activity and will bring both impacts and benefits to communities throughout the state, including San Benito County. The tentatively proposed route would traverse the north end of San Benito County, roughly along the alignment of Route 152.
Barnes said the California High Speed Rail Authority has offered to reimburse local governments for planning, design, engineering and public engagement work related to the project. He said the county staff was asking the board to grant it the authority to Ray Espinosa, county administrative officer, to negotiate a reimbursement agreement on behalf of the county.
“The agreement would allow the staff to track our costs and get reimbursed for that,” Barnes said. “We anticipate it will be three years or longer engagement while they work through the issues.”
Barnes said there would be a rail station in Gilroy, with the next one located in the Central Valley.
“The train will not stop here, but there is the potential for a maintenance yard or some other equipment facility in the county that might bring additional jobs,” he said. “But that would also create additional complexities regarding environmental impacts.”
He added that most of the construction over Pacheco Pass would be tunnels.
“There would be significant tunneling activity and mine tailings to be disposed of and we can consider that either as an issue or an opportunity,” Barnes said. “We have yet to figure out how that plays out.”
Supervisor Margie Barrios reminded Barnes that the county has a limited staff and wondered who would be keeping track of work that would need to be reimbursed.
“I anticipate there will be a range of skills required, both on the engineering side, planning side, the attorneys’ office, perhaps the COG (County of Governments), so there will be a lot of potential players in this,” Barnes answered. “One of the things that we’ve started to implement is the project-level tracking system for costs. We’ll try to work with the other agencies and departments to make sure that happens seamlessly.”
Barrios said she hopes that the project will be a business opportunity, rather than an issue.
“It’s not going to go away,” she said. “They’re going to be in San Benito County, so let’s try to figure a way that we can benefit from their presence.”
Barnes answered that the project could be a huge opportunity for the county.
“The idea of placing a high-speed rail station in Gilroy is like putting an international airport in town,” Barnes said. “It has a huge impact on the region. Whether we like it or not, there will be impacts and opportunities: changes in growth, changes in traffic, and changes in air. We need to think through all of that and find the opportunities. I think it is a big opportunity.”
“Since we are already working with them on the realignment of 152, I think if they have a facility for maintenance of some sort might fit in with our big picture,” Barrios said.
Hollister resident Marty Richman offered his opinion, urging the board to take the long view, stating that even if the county experienced some initial financial gains it would never recoup its costs.
“We’re never going to get back what this is going to cost our taxpayers,” he said adamantly. “The initial (estimated costs) amounts was going to be $44 billion, then it went to $54 billion, and now it’s up to $66 billion. Who knows what it will be when they put the first track down when it’s increased one and a half times the (initial) price and they haven’t done anything.”
Richman said the prospective route has changed five times and there isn’t much political support for the train. He said it will have to be heavily subsidized because it will never pay its own way.
“I know you’re not going to do it because we would always want to have the fifty cents today than $5,000 tomorrow,” he said. “This is fools’ gold. I call it the ‘bullet-in-the-head train.’ Nobody wants it. They’re building the cheapest part first. God knows what it’s going to cost when they put it through Los Angeles and they have to pay through the nose to get the right-of-way.”
He questioned the sanity of tunneling through mountains.
“That’s the best place to tunnel, right next to a fault,” he said. “I think it’s crazy, but I know you’ll take the money today because today we have to eat and tomorrow doesn’t count.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he agreed with Richman and called the project a “boondoggle.”
“It’s a shame that the state hasn’t taken these funds and invested them into the state highway transportation system, whether it’s public transit in our cities or highway maintenance, as well as what’s happening locally,” Botelho said. “We need water projects in the state. That would be a better way to invest at this time.”
He said he was concerned about spending too much staff time because he felt the state would not reimburse the county.
“I don’t trust them,” Botelho said. “They have lied in the past and they’ll lie again. I think we’re better off filling potholes. I’m going to vote against this because I’m ornery.”
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he could not disagree “one iota” with Botelho, but added that if the county was going to get any money out of the state the county needs to have an agreement.
“Whether we get the money or not, we’ll have to wait and see, but we have to have the agreement to have half a chance of getting it,” he said.
Muenzer went on to make the motion to direct the staff to come up with an agreement. Barrios seconded it, and as the two, along with Rivas voted in favor of the resolution, Botelho voiced an emphatic, “No.”
Rivas shot back, almost good-naturedly, “Motion carries 3-1,” which brought a round of laughter from the board, including Botelho. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz was absent.
Abandoned vehicles an issue
Moving on to the next loosely transportation-related agenda item, Barnes addressed the need to reintroduce the abandoned vehicle fee program. He reminded the board that in 1991 there was a program funded by a $1 DMV fee.
“That went away with a 2015 ballot measure,” he said. “We were on a pay-as-you-collect program that essentially closed shop.”
Barnes said an accounting of abandoned vehicles in the county include four occupied transient motorhomes, two commercial truck trailers parked in residential areas, nine 72-hour parking violations in residential areas. He said one of the transient motorhomes had been towed away and 10 of the 72-hour notices were voluntarily moved from streets to private properties.
The number of vehicles having been towed decreased from a high in 2006 of 96 to just one so far this year, said Barnes, hypothesizing that the decline is primarily due to the value of scrap metal. He said people are holding on to vehicles and selling them for a few hundred dollars rather than just letting them rust away.
Barnes said there are four options for consideration: Revert the program back to the California Highway Patrol, which is a zero cost to the county, but he believes CHP would consider abandoned vehicles to be a low priority. The second option is to amend the county code to include the code enforcement staff to issue parking tickets, which would require limited staff time and would be a low priority. And because it would take time to train staff, he said it might be six months before it could be put into effect. The third choice would be to consider derelict vehicles on private as zoning violations. He said the code would need to be “cleaned up” so it would be clearer what could be enforced. The final option would be the posting of Community Service Agencies (CSAs) with parking notifications and have the boards of the CSA grant the county the authority to enforce those regulations. He said this would be the same process as used for commercial parking lots.
Barrios asked if there is a way to trace ownership of abandoned vehicles.
“I don’t know if you give them tickets if there’s going to be anybody to even pay them,” she said. “So, you’re going to go through a lot of work and get nothing. CHP is not going to make it a priority. There’s not a whole lot they can do. We need to do something, but I’m not sure which would be beneficial.”
Botelho said he thought most of the abandoned vehicles were on private property. He said he would rather see code enforcement personnel dealing with illegal building activities rather than abandoned cars. He said maybe the best option is to not do anything.
Espinosa said that the resolution was being presented to the board to give it information in order to decide if the staff should move forward with an initiative or choose one of the four options.
“The voters of San Benito County did not think that abandon vehicles were an issue and do not support this tax,” Supervisor Muenzer said. “It’s not an issue now, and as Supervisor Botelho said, maybe the best option is not to do anything at the present time. I would support that.”
Barrios said if the vehicles being discussed are on private property then the property owners should be held accountable. She said she has seen at least 20 abandoned cars in San Juan on private property. She also said she has seen a nice house on Santa Ana Road with some 15 cars in the back yard.
“That’s unacceptable,” she said. “I’m sorry, we’re not a junkyard county.”
Barnes affirmed that nearly all the vehicles were on public property. Barrios said that makes a difference. Barnes said the county could enforce zoning violations, but said the code is somewhat unclear about private property.
Muenzer commented that it his understanding that if the vehicles are registered he didn’t think the ordinance had any limitations as to how many could be kept on private property.
“They can have as many cars or parts of cars as they want as long as they keep the registrations up to date,” he said.
Barrios pointed out to Rivas that the measure that was voted down was done so by a very small margin. She said that perhaps if they had more statistics and could come up with stronger wording to support a new measure it might be successful.
“I don’t want to drop it,” she said. “These are public roads and this isn’t acceptable.”
During public comments, Richman asked if the program might be self-funding, in that the vehicles could be sold for scrap to reimburse the county. Barnes said when he worked for the City of Pasadena that was what was done and it worked well. But he said that was 35 years ago and laws may have changed.
“We can look into that, but it may not be possible,” he said. “If a person pushes a car up onto their driveway and it sits, there’s nothing we can do.”
Espinosa recommended there be further discussion during a special board meeting with the sales tax initiative to possibly draw up a resolution. Rivas said he wanted to put it on the ballot.
On June 14, according to a KCRA Channel 3 story: "Another $63 million was added Tuesday to the cost of California's high-speed rail project, pushing it back 17 months to August 2019, after the state won a lawsuit that had tied up land needed for construction for 4½ years."
To keep up with the latest from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, go to: http://www.hsr.ca.gov/
The California High-Speed Rail Authority's most recent progress update can be found at http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/programs/construction/road_closure/2016_Construction_Alert_May.pdf.