Vidak rails against bullet-train plan, met by bipartisan crowd at Fresno event

The Fresno BeeJanuary 17, 2014 

State Sen. Andy Vidak came to the Fresno Rescue Mission on Friday to rail againstCalifornia's bullet-train plans. -- and was met by a bipartisan crowd.

The Hanford Republican announced a quartet of bills "aimed at driving a stake through the heart" of high-speed rail Friday afternoon outside the Rescue Mission, which provides shelter and services for the homeless on G Street south of Ventura Street near downtown Fresno. It sits along a section of the proposed high-speed train line where construction could begin later this year.

As the Senate is controlled by Democrats, however, it is questionable whether any of the bills will gain traction.

In a news release prior to the announcement, Vidak indicated that his goal is to kill the bullet train. He tempered his in-person remarks, however, as he faced a crowd that included both high-speed rail critics from his home area in Kings County and a couple dozen representatives of labor unions who support the project.

"Obviously from the number of people we have here, this is very important to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons," Vidak told the crowd. "All I'm trying to do is put it back on the ballot."

Project opponents waved signs that said "Water, not rail," and cheered Vidak and other speakers. Rail supporters, some clad in hard hats and safety vests, booed Vidak as they wielded their own signs proclaiming high-speed rail as "good for the local economy, good for air quality and good for jobs."

In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion bond measure for high-speed rail.

"High-speed rail is not the same animal we voted on in 2008. It's changed completely," Vidak said. He added that when Prop. 1A was approved, the project was estimated to cost $33 billion.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's cost estimate for the first phase of the rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, through the San Joaquin Valley, is $68.4 billion -- down from a potential price tag of almost $100 billion that was projected in late 2011.

But Vidak said Friday that the cost now could be $300 billion to $350 billion, repeating a recent assertion by Senate Transporation Committee chairman Mark DeSaulnier, a Concord Democrat who voted against a 2012 bill to fund high-speed rail construction in the San Joaquin Valley. "It is ballooning our cost, and that's one of the reasons we're looking for a re-vote," Vidak said.

Vidak's bills -- his first legislation in Sacramento since winning a special election in the 16th Senate District last July -- represent a smorgasbord of tactics to address concerns he said he's heard from businesses and homeowners who would be displaced by the rail route. All four are proposed as urgency measures that would take effect immediately upon passage by the Senate and Assembly and being signed into law by the governor:

Senate Bill 901 calls for stopping sales of bonds from Prop. 1A and would put the project back before California voters in November. In the meantime, the bill would block spending any additional Prop. 1A money on the project.

SB 902 takes aim at the use of eminent domain or condemnation by the state to acquire property for the high-speed train project. State law requires an appraisal of fair market value for compensation of property taken through eminent domain. The new bill would require the California High-Speed Rail Authority or the state Public Works Board to offer either the fair market value or enough money for the property owner to pay off what he or she owes on loans used to buy or improve the property, whichever is greater.

SB 903 proposes to make the rail authority reimburse local governments for the annual loss of property taxes from private property the state buys or takes through eminent domain for the rail project.

SB 904 would require any rail authority employees or contractors to identify themselves to owners of private property and get consent from the owner before entering the property.

SB 901 is Vidak's second try at putting high-speed rail back on a ballot. Last August, he proposed an amendment to do just that, but the amendment went nowhere in the Legislature, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by sizable margins in both houses. Still, Vidak has hope that these bills can make headway in the Legislature.

"I know folks who are running for statewide office who are coming through Fresno and saying, 'Hey, people don't like the train down there,' so they're asking questions," he said. "This could end up being a little bipartisan. It's not futile, absolutely not, or I would not do it."

Vidak's staff said they had not yet assessed the potential cost of property tax revenue lost to cities or counties from property going off the tax rolls for high-speed rail right of way. And while project critics often describe the rail project as an "expensive boondoggle," Vidak's staff said they have not analyzed any extra expense to the state from requiring the rail authority to pay owners more for property or to make ongoing reimbursements of lost property taxes to cities and counties along the route.

Vidak held his announcement at the Fresno Rescue Mission because "it's been here a long time, and this train is going to go right through the middle of it."

The Rev. Larry Arce, the Rescue Mission's CEO, called the property on G Street "holy ground." It is where the organization has been helping the homeless since 1949.

"If we are displaced and we have to move, where do we go in the community?" he asked. "Because of the perceptions in the community, people say 'Not in my backyard.' Who would want a rescue mission near their homes where their children are? Who in the business community wants a rescue mission that could impact their business negatively?"

Arce said representatives from the rail agency visited the rescue mission last May, but have not yet provided an appraisal of the 10-acre property that straddles G Street. He's not only worried about whether the authority would pay the Rescue Mission enough money to continue the organization's mission on another site, but about having enough time to prepare for a move.

"If we are moved, how long does it take for us to build back up, the structure, the buildings. It's not something you can do overnight," he said. "We don't want them to come and say, 'In 30 days you have to move.' There's no way you can do what you need. That's a big issue for me."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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