Monday, March 21, 2011

The Relentless Plow of HSR is now taking on California's cash-cow; Agriculture!

You don't kill the goose that lays golden eggs.  The CHSRA apparently doesn't know that. Didn't those guys go to kindergarten?  Didn't they learn any of life's basic lessons?

When the rail authority began to threaten the businesses and residents of the Bay Area Peninsula, we over-educated, argumentative types started objecting and quarreling.  They trotted out a program called "Context Sensitive Solutions."  We were captivated. Who among us isn't "sensitive?"  Who among us doesn't understand the college word "context?"

We were easy for HSR to bamboozle with their "outreach" charades.  Being kind-hearted people, many of my colleagues still don't get it. They still believe they can negotiate with the rail authority for a trench for the trains on the Peninsula.

But, now pushed into the Central Valley by the FRA under the threat of losing federal funding, the CHSRA has been taking on the farmers there.  They are the meat-and-potatoes of California.  And, they are much harder to bamboozle.  You just don't mess with those guys.  

But, Mr. Smarty-Pants Van Ark and his team of public relations giants started telling the Central Valley where they were going to be laying their track, build their elevated viaduct structures, and how it was intended to be around 130 miles of track that wasn't usable by anybody.

Land would have to be taken by eminent domain. Farms would get divided in two.  Farmers would not be able to get from one side of their lands to the other. Irrigation lines would be compromised. The affected properties' values, including from productive farms, would plummet.  And, this  start-up project would cost over $5 billion, but they won't know for another year what or where exactly it would be built. 

How to make friends and influence people, eh, Mr. Van Ark? Since the rail authority committed $9 million dollars to the Ogilvy Public Relations Company, their public relations have been worse than a movie-star's divorce. If you can believe it, even Rod Diridon had to admit that.  I'm guessing that the real Central Valley conflicts haven't heated up yet. 

Although the Central Valley suffers from severe unemployment, and the Union executives have been pushing for this train project from the beginning, construction won't begin until late 2012, if then.  That's one and a half years of waiting; a long time for someone unemployed with no income.  Then, you have to ask when the time comes, who will be employed?  Building rail corridors for HSR today is not like the good old days of John Henry swinging his hammer.  But, we'll see when the time comes.  If it comes. I'm anticipating a huge amount of Union disappointment. 

Construction in the Central Valley depends upon the rail authority getting and keeping the federal funds, around $2.5 billion.  That would be matched with State Prop. 1A bond funds.  After having gone out for bids from construction firms, and selected the one most politically well connected (that's how they selected their public relations firm), the rail authority would buy land, cut a corridor of some length, plan and begin the various elevated structures, and start laying track (made in China) until the funds ran out.  No more funds?  No more construction.

Now, farmers of the Central Valley, you will have the worst of both worlds.  You've been adversely affected by the presence of this project which may not be completed in your lifetime, if ever.  And the rail authority, the state government, and the federal government will have blown through over $5 billion of your tax dollars.  How will that feel?  Aren't you glad you voted for HSR supporters Cathleen Galgiani and Jim Costa, who worked so hard to bring this to your front doorstep?

Growers Ready To Battle High-Speed Rail
by Jessica Flores
on March 21, 2011 8:53 PM

Fearing California's proposed high-speed train service could cut through farmland, devalue property and undercut a $36 billion industry, Big Agriculture may be gearing up to derail the first phase of construction before plans are even finalized.

The Ag business is well financed and armed with lobbyists, but don't look for a full-fledged fight with the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the body responsible for the project. Instead, it's shaping up to be a bout between agriculture and the interested contractors, cities and unions that disagree over exactly where the tracks should be laid.

"There will be lawsuits," said almond grower Keith Gardiner, who owns 3,300 acres of land in Wasco that sits directly in the path of one of the proposed routes. "If backed into a corner, yeah, we are going to come out swinging."

Construction on a 120-mile stretch from just north of Fresno to just south of Bakersfield is scheduled to begin in September 2012.

California voters first approved a measure in 2008 to provide $9 billion in bonds for a high-speed train service. At that time, tracks were set to go along existing rail lines and transportation corridors. In Wasco, the line could have been built over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, which runs parallel to Gardiner's land.

Gardiner, in fact, would have preferred it that way.Instead, in the most recent alignment proposes a train route that would cut directly through Gardiner's farmland.

"For the most part, we couldn't hug the [BNSF] rail because of the curves and the speed of the train," said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The rail needs to make San Francisco to Los Angeles in 240 minutes to be considered "high-speed," and the train will make most of its speed in the Central Valley stretch, making the curvy BNSF alignment less attractive.

For now, discontent with the plans has surfaced at high-speed rail authority meetings and in newsletters. Groups opposed to the rail cutting through farmland haven't unleashed lobbyists yet. But that could change as plans are finalized in the next few months.

The Sierra Club has issued letters supporting the high-speed rail along the BNSF line. American Farmland Trust — a group that lobbies Congress on agricultural issues — also sent letters to the high-speed rail authority encouraging the board to go along the existing BNSF line.

The California Farm Bureau Federation has come out against the rail. Public records show they have hired seven lobbyists in California, but filings on payments to lobbyists have not yet been made available. The California Farm Bureau Federation, which has 76,500 members spanning 56 counties in California, spent $330,000 lobbying Congress in 2010.

"To us, it doesn't seem like the [train] should be a priority. Maybe for the future it is. Forty-three billion is just an incredible amount to be spending," said Richard Matteis, administrator for the California Farm Bureau Federation

That's the same rhetoric being used by Republican elected officials across the country. Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have rejected funds from the Obama administration for high-speed rail, citing concerns over costs. More than $600 million of those unused funds from other states has been redirected to California.

However, federal money for a high-speed train in California is in jeopardy of being diverted. Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, who sits on the transportation committee, signed a piece of legislation (H.R. 761) that would allow California to use federal funds currently allocated to the high-speed rail to fix and expand state Highway 99 instead. Denham says using the money this way would help to create jobs now. Matteis said the California Farm Bureau Federation is behind this idea. The crop producers and processors industry contributed $143,214 to Denham's first-time bid for congress in 2010.

Almond-grower Keith Gardiner says he actually supports high-speed rail, if it's on existing transportation lines like Highway 99. But, he says if it cuts through his farmland, he wants California's high-speed rail to face the same fate it has in other states.

"If [the High-Speed Rail Authority] doesn't do it right here, there's going to be such a barrage of negative publicity, high-speed rail may never recover or ever get funding to extend it either north or south," said Gardiner.