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Rail authority pressed on jobs in Central Valley

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If construction of California’s high-speed rail project begins this year in the central San Joaquin Valley, employment advocates want to make sure it provides jobs for unemployed workers in the economically ravaged region.

Since September, the Fresno Workforce Investment Board has pressed the California High-Speed Rail Authority to require that contractors on the train project hire at least 30 percent of their workers from areas of high unemployment. The local board also wants contractors to maintain a local hiring office in the Valley.

The rail authority board will consider the Fresno proposal at its meeting today in Los Angeles. Blake Konczal, executive director of the workforce board, plans to address the board to reinforce the request.

Konczal said the proposal was made on behalf of the Fresno Works Consortium, a collection of city and county agencies that hopes to maximize the job-creating potential of high-speed rail in Fresno County.

At stake could be thousands of jobs building the first section of high-speed rail line between Madera and Bakersfield – a region selected by the Obama administration to benefit from more than $3 billion in federal stimulus money and other transportation funds because of its high unemployment rate.

“Without hiring requirements in place, we fear that too few jobs will be filled by unemployed residents from some of the most economically distressed areas of the country,” Konczal said.

Unemployment rates in Valley counties ranged between 14 and 17 percent in November, the most recent month for which information is available. That compares with the statewide jobless rate of 11.3 percent and the national rate of 8.6 percent.

But state rail officials are reluctant to commit to any hiring restrictions for its would-be contractors for fear of violating grant agreements with the federal government.

“The authority’s funding would be jeopardized if it adopted local preferences for any of its federally funded contracts,” Thomas Fellenz, the authority’s chief counsel, said in a memo to the agency’s board.

Authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said the agency is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to clarify whether the Fresno proposal would run afoul of federal law.

Konczal said that while the Valley has an urgent need for jobs, the recommendation specifies no single county or region but instead calls for hiring from any high-unemployment areas.

“We’re not proposing a criteria to give something exclusively to the Valley or Fresno,” Konczal said. “We’re asking that for all sections of the U.S. with areas of high unemployment, those residents be given a preference.”

Tom Richards, a Fresno developer who is a vice chairman of the rail authority board, said he plans to abstain from any discussion or vote on the Fresno Works proposal because he is also chairman of the Workforce Investment Board.

For several years, backers of the high-speed rail project suggested that construction could create tens of thousands of jobs in the Valley.

In reports issued last summer, however, the rail authority estimated that at the peak of construction, contractors building the high-speed rail system in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties may employ as many as 1,300 people in a year. Spinoff jobs generated by related construction activity could reach 2,600 in the peak years of work.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or 559-441-6319. This story resulted from a partnership among California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, U-T San Diego, KQED, the Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and The Modesto Bee.

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