Ag activists blast Valley high-speed rail plan

February 22, 2011 

Outside the University of California at Merced's Fresno Center on Shaw Avenue, competing rallies Tuesday alternately touted the economic benefits of the state's proposed high-speed rail project or derided it as a boondoggle.

But when four members of Congress started a meeting inside, the chairman made clear he wasn't interested in discussing the project or debating its future in California.

"I'm not getting into the local food fight outside on the high-speed rail project," said Florida Republican John Mica.

Instead, Mica -- who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- said he came to Fresno to hear about other needs as his committee works to reauthorize the nation's surface transportation programs.

After close to two hours of hearing about streamlining regulations and improving the ability to export San Joaquin Valley farm products through the Port of Oakland, Mica turned the meeting over to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, who called on two Valley agriculture activists to speak.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, and Madera County farmer Kole Upton blasted the high-speed rail project, which is scheduled to start with a stretch of track from Borden in Madera County to a location south of Corcoran.

They criticized the state's High-Speed Rail Authority for poor communication with farmers and ranchers and said the project would depress rural land values, damage such things as farm roads and canals, and destroy 40,000 acres of prime farm land.

Then, as the meeting was drawing to a close, Fresno County Supervisor Susan Anderson asked to speak, and addressed the need for high-speed rail.

"We want to encourage you to really think big about the next generation," she told the congressional representatives. "We want to make sure you are hearing us on this issue."

She then asked everybody in the audience who supports high-speed rail to stand up. Around 90% of those present stood.

It was a mirror of the rallies that preceded the meeting.

Union supporters as well as civic leaders including Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., and Al Smith, president and CEO of the Greater Fresno Chamber of Commerce, rallied in support of high-speed rail.

Anderson, who addressed supporters before the meeting, said the project will bring tourists to Fresno and put it within easy reach of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

"We have to say 'no' to these people who are saying 'no' to high-speed rail," she said.

Eddie Clement, a Fresno carpenter who rallied with several other union members, said the project is vital to help the Valley's economic recovery.

"We want the jobs," he said. "We want that train."

The noisy pro-train crowd of around 60 chanted slogans and tried to shout down a smaller, rival group that opposes the train. The sides were separated by yellow police tape.

There were about a dozen anti-train protesters -- a mix of fiscal conservatives and Kings County farmers concerned about the effects the train would have on their livelihood.

Jared Gordon of the Central Valley Tea Party said he telecommutes for a job in Beverly Hills and would likely use and benefit from the train. But, he said, both the state and nation are drowning in debt.

"If we had the money, high-speed rail might make sense," he said. "But we can't afford high-speed rail."

Hanford-area farmer Bob Lohse stood with Gordon, but for a different reason. He said the proposed route would run near his house and divide part of his farm. He has many concerns about the effect on his life and farming operation.

Back inside, only one person who was asked to speak to the committee members addressed high-speed rail.

Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and a former member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, touted the idea nationwide.

Diridon, who was a late addition to the list of speakers, said California's proposed 800-mile line would create 160,000 construction jobs, some of them stretching out over decades, as well as 450,000 local service jobs near the rail stations.

Mica said he would like to see high-speed rail included in the surface transportation bill. Denham said high-speed rail "has a place" in the nation, as long as it is "on time, under budget and off agricultural land."

Afterward, High-Speed Rail Authority officials strongly defended the project and rebutted some of the comments made by Cunha, Upton and Denham.

Authority Chief Executive Officer Roelof van Ark said it was "a little unfortunate" that the committee did not give him or other authority officials a chance to respond to Cunha or Upton.

Van Ark disputed that 40,000 acres of farmland would be lost. In other countries, he said, farmers work the land right up to the edge of the train tracks.

Addressing another concern, he said the authority would pay for infrastructure relocation in rural areas, just as it will in urban areas.

He also said an improved business plan is in the works as a more definite route and starting point are now known. It was impossible to do it earlier, he said, because a business plan for an all-urban route would look drastically different from the one for a rural route.

Tuesday's transportation hearing came less than a week after state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, proposed removing the authority's nine-member board by next January and replacing it with appointees who must meet specific expertise and ethical criteria.

The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6320.

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