About 40 Fresno business owners and employees rallied against California's proposed high-speed rail project Tuesday at the former Klein's Truck Stop.
The Central Valley Tea Party organized the event, which drew dozens of other opponents, in advance of meetings the state High-Speed Rail Authority is holding today and Thursday in Fresno.
Tea Party activist Steve Brandau said that 106 business owners along the path of the high-speed trains have signed and sent letters to the Fresno City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors opposing the project.
"Our chief concern is that there's no viable funding stream for this project," Brandau said. The organization's message to Gov. Jerry Brown and the state's rail authority, he added, is "What part of 'We are broke' don't you understand?"
A large sign at the rally proclaimed, "100 Businesses against High Speed Rail," and declared that rail money would be better spent on water, roads and jails.
"Roads are torn up in many locations and there is no money to fix them," said Brandau, who owns a carpet-cleaning business. "There would be money ... if we weren't dedicated to this nonsense project."
Several business owners, including Susan Romo of Romo's Towing on Golden State Boulevard and Norm Nelson of Thermo King on South Railroad Avenue -- both near the Union Pacific Railroad freight line that the high-speed tracks will follow through the city -- said they first learned that their companies would be affected by the high-speed line from Tea Party representatives. They added that they never were contacted by the state rail authority.
"We think it's criminal on the part of the high-speed rail authority not to come and level with these people," Brandau said.
Since last fall, however, at least six meetings have been held in Fresno by the city or the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation to let owners in the high-speed rail corridor know what is happening with the project, said Michael Lukens, a spokesman for the city. Two of the meetings were in September, two in February, one in March and one in April. Rail authority representatives were involved in the September and February meetings.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin said in a statement issued Tuesday: "The city has been working with the High Speed Rail Authority, local property owners and the Economic Development Corporation to, first of all, adjust the right of way to avoid as many businesses as possible and, second of all, make sure businesses are seamlessly re-located within the area if they are impacted.
"Each of these businesses matters to our city, and we are working hard to keep them here."
The rail authority weighed in with a rebuttal late Tuesday afternoon.
"It is unfortunate that those who oppose the high-speed rail project started fear-mongering about a process that hasn't even started," said Lisa Marie Burcar, a spokeswoman for the authority. "The authority has taken all the appropriate steps necessary to notify identified property owners who might be in the project's proposed alignment."
Burcar said formal notices were sent out two weeks ago, after a final environmental report for the Merced-Fresno section was released. "Property owners will have ample time and opportunity to work with the authority throughout the process," she added.
Shawn Shiralian, who owns the 20-acre site that houses the EZ Trip Truck Stop -- formerly Klein's -- and other businesses, said he has been to several of the meetings but has yet to hear details from the rail authority about his land.
"Nobody's talking," he said. "The way I see it, everybody's in favor of this -- except me and all the business owners here."
Shiralian said his truck stop and other businesses, including a service station and a fast-food restaurant, employ about 120 people whose jobs would be affected if the businesses are forced to move. He estimated that replacing everything on the site at another location could cost as much as $15 million.
He added that his businesses generate sales taxes -- money that would likely benefit another county if he could not find a suitable replacement site in Fresno County: a large parcel with freeway access for truckers, good visibility and a reasonable price.
"I'd have to move somewhere else, and I haven't been able to look anywhere," Shiralian said. "This whole thing is coming so quick and so fast, I don't have enough time ... to look for sites."
The key issue at the rail authority's meeting today and Thursday is the final environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno section of the statewide high-speed rail system.
The authority's board will take public comment today before voting Thursday to certify the report and finalize a route and station locations in Merced and Fresno.
The Merced-Fresno section is part of what would be a 520-mile system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles through the Valley with trains capable of traveling at 220 mph.
The rail authority plans to spend about $6 billion to begin construction in the Valley from Madera to Bakersfield. That stretch would be part of an initial operating line from Merced to the Los Angeles Basin on which high-speed trains could carry passengers within a decade at a cost of $31 billion.
The full San Francisco-Los Angeles system is estimated to cost about $68 billion by the time it's completed in 2028.
If you go
What: California High-Speed Rail Authority meetings
When: Today starting at 10 a.m. and Thursday starting at 9 a.m.
Where: Fresno Convention Center Exhibit Hall, 700 M St., in downtown Fresno. The meetings are open to the public (see a copy of the agenda).
Webcast: The authority's website has a link to a live webcast of the meetings.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, email@example.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.