Saturday, December 31, 2011

High-Speed Rail Wars in the Central Valley of California

Last day of 2011.  That's the year that California discovered that a major crime was taking place.  A few people have known about it for a long time, but they were pretty much ignored.  What could possibly go wrong, they were asked. This is a great concept, people said.  Everyone will want to ride the train, people said. It's a great investment, people said.  

Well, here's an article from the California Central Valley.  People there have been fighting this high-speed rail monster since they discovered that they were the first target of opportunity for the rail authority, which was promised funds from the FRA if they started construction there.

You really need to get this fine-grained picture of the situation, with its history, to understand just how shabbily the citizens of the Central Valley have been treated by the rail authority. This article does a great job of that.

This entire high-speed rail process, if you didn't know any better, would appear to be intentionally designed to piss-off everyone in the state.  The CHSRA is a text-book case of how not to make things happen in the government. 

Everyone likes to make lists at the end of the year.  Here's ours, in no particular order. For brevity's sake, we'll stop at 10.

1. This project has been primarily a public relations stunt, intended to make the public believe a large number of lies.

2. The CHSRA has mismanaged this project to a stunning degree and this has been documented by a number of other government agencies in California.

3.  The rail authority has made massive efforts to fool all of us with grossly distorted numbers for just about everything, with charade like open-houses and other meetings, and with fraudulent plans and agendas.

4.  This project has not had bipartisan support at any level.  It has been, and continues to be, fiercely fought over between Republicans and Democrats. It's not a transit project; it's a political battle-ground over money.

5.  High-Speed Rail is the worst possible way to stimulate a moribund economy and create jobs for the unemployed.  With stimulus funding available well over a year now, there still has been no hiring and there won't be until late next year.

6.  The basic reason Democrats are promoting this project is their claim of reducing unemployment.  That's a demonstrably false claim. Real jobs forecasts are fractions of those being promised.

7. One of the most egregious lies is that this project will produce profits; that is, surplus revenues.  We already know that this is not going to be the case.

8.  Both political parties are using this project as a weapon against each other, claims of deficit reduction on the Republican side and employment opportunities on the other side.  These claims have nothing to do with reality.

9. The high-speed rail project in California is not a transit project that is intended to address California's transit problems.  Those have not been studied except by the HSR promoters determined to substantiate their highly inadequate rationalizations and justification.  Outside of the rail authority's advertising hype, there is no compelling reason to build this train.

10.  High-Speed Rail is a luxury, premium, top-of-the-line component of a comprehensive passenger rail system.  It is intended for the affluent, the well-to-do, the professional class with expense accounts.  California's passenger rail system is far too inadequate to support this icing layer on the passenger rail cake.

11. One more.  Costs. Even $100 billion as the final cost forecast can't be trusted. Construction hasn't even started yet.  Remember the Boston Big Dig.  From $2 billion to $22 billion over the life of the construction process. There is still litigation many years after completion.  This HSR project will be no different.

Happy New Year. And it will be a Happy Year if we can stop HSR in California.


Fight against high-speed project dominates 2011

By Seth Nidever
Posted: Friday, December 30, 2011 12:15 pm 

A lot of stories came and went in 2011, but one really dominated local news coverage with dozens of headlines: the California high-speed rail project. And it’s only going to heat up in 2012. A volatile mix of Sacramento politics, growing local opposition and the state’s budget deficit is combining to create the conditions for an epic battle over the future of a project that seems to grow more controversial with each passing day.

It’s not that high-speed rail is new. First approved by voters in 1996, then reaffirmed in 2008, the project stayed in the shadows for a long time, cropping up at obscure planning meetings where California High-Speed Rail Authority consultants passed out glossy brochures for what was then a $33 billion plan to whisk riders from the Bay Area to Southern California at up to 220 mph.

Skeptics questioned how a state in a constant budget crisis, running huge deficits, could possibly fund a $33 billion project. Now that the estimated cost has ballooned to $98.5 billion, early skepticism has turned into openly hostile criticism in many parts of the state.

When it became clear in late 2010 that the route was going to sweep through dairies, homes, businesses and farms in Kings County, the issue hit home. During 2011, grassroots efforts sprouted and grew, establishing Kings County as an epicenter of anti-rail activism.

The proposed route cut through farmland, dairies and even a housing development east of Hanford, with construction to start in late 2012. Residents of the Ponderosa neighborhood off East Lacey Boulevard in the path of the alignment scrambled to find out more information but were frustrated by the lack of answers.

Concerned Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability was born out of that frustration. Pairing Ponderosa neighborhood resident Aaron Fukuda with Frank Oliveira, a property owner with farmland in the path of the proposed route, the group has since swelled to dozens of members, with Fukuda and Oliveira acting as co-chairmen.

Even as private citizens were mobilizing, established groups were also getting in on the act. The Kings County Farm Bureau adopted a legal strategy trying to force the Authority to move the alignment either along Interstate 5 or Highway 99, thereby sparing local farmland. County supervisors quickly adopted the same approach, arguing that running the rail through farmland and dairies could produce as much as a $100 million hit to the local economy. Local officials never bought into Authority arguments that high-speed trains would spur economic development.

County criticisms added ammunition when the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a blistering report in May saying that the plan was plagued with problems threatening its success, including inadequate funding, poor accountability and inaccurate cost estimates.

The report made big waves — big enough to bring a rebuke from longtime high-speed rail advocate Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Armed with a sense of swelling dissatisfaction, Kings County residents made inroads with other groups, linking up with Bay Area citizen groups that were also questioning the project’s wisdom. A contingent of vocal county residents made their first trip to an Authority board meeting in June. It would be the first of many such journeys, often by the busload. Sometimes, the results were amusing, such as in November, when Oliveira spoke past his time limit and was approached by two California Highway Patrol officers under direction from Authority officials.

As anti-rail sentiment surged, politicians began jumping into the fight. Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, held a packed community forum in Hanford in July in which he joined several legislators raising concerns, including Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point; Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach; and Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Richvale.

Valadao said California voters should get a second chance to vote on the project. State Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, said the same.

On Aug. 9, the Authority released a massive, 30,000-page collection of environmental documents for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section aimed at addressing the public’s concerns, but seeming to only raise more questions. Fukuda and Oliveira’s group said 45 days wasn’t a long enough public comment period to review the report. So did the Kings County Farm Bureau. Both groups asked for 90 days. Instead, the Authority extended the review period to 60 days.

Meanwhile, in late August, county officials asked Gov. Jerry Brown to force a reconsideration of the proposed high-speed rail route that would swing through local farmland.

The complaints continued. Farming giant JG Boswell Co., dominating southern Kings County with tens of thousands of acres, said it needed six months to adequately review the documents to determine how it would affect its farming operations, as the proposed route sliced through or near Corcoran and into Boswell property. Very quickly, other groups followed suit to ask for a longer review period.

On Oct. 5, the Authority dropped a bombshell. It delayed the Fresno-to-Bakersfield environmental impact report until sometime in 2012, saying it would reconsider a long-abandoned alignment going west of Hanford. The Authority said it was acting on the recommendation of federal agencies and local comment. Local groups, for their part, scratched their heads, wondering what the Authority was referring to.

The new alignment proposal generated a whole new crop of opponents who joined with east-of-Hanford property owners in a united front.

Finally the Board of Supervisors voted on Oct. 11 to reject any possible high-speed alignment through Kings County. Officials acknowledged that the gesture was mostly symbolic, but hoped it would catch on.

On Nov. 1, the Authority changed its strategy in a newly released business plan. Instead of building the whole project at once, the Authority announced that it would start with a test track in the San Joaquin Valley and expand from there if more funding became available. The target completion date for the whole project was moved back from 2020 to 2033 and the cost estimate soared from $43 billion to $98.5 billion.

The revamped strategy was subjected to a withering assault. It prompted a lawsuit filed by Kings County, Fukuda and Hanford-area farmer John Tos. They argued that the piecemeal approach violates Proposition 1A, the 2008 law that authorized funding for high-speed rail. The lawsuit alleges that Prop. 1A requires the money be in hand for a usable segment before any groundbreaking starts.

The Authority has only enough money to build Valley test tracks without electricity and with no passenger service.

The hits kept coming.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office chimed in again, suggesting that the Authority’s scheme might not meet the legal requirements of Prop. 1A.  Then in early December came a new Field poll, concluding that nearly two-thirds of registered California voters want high-speed rail to be put back on the ballot for reconsideration. The poll also found that a hefty majority would kill the project if given a chance.

The intense debate over high-speed rail spilled over the Kings County line. On Dec. 5, the Tulare County Association of Governments upset local officials by moving forward with an $800,000 high-speed rail planning grant for a train station in Kings County. Tulare County officials have since put the action on hold, saying they regret that they didn’t talk to Kings County officials first.

On Dec. 14, the Bakersfield City Council, after listening to City Manager Alan Tandy deliver a scathing critique, voted 6-1 to condemn the whole high-speed proposal. Kings County critics praised the vote, hailing it as a sign of growing unanimity in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The project’s prospects are up in the air. There’s a growing chorus of criticism in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C., but strong support continues from Brown and the Obama administration.

A couple of things are certain. Expect to hear a lot more about high-speed rail in 2012, and expect Kings County to be in the thick of it.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or

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