Fresno residents gave California High-Speed Rail Authority planners an earful of both support and opposition over a proposed 220-mph passenger train through the San Joaquin Valley.
Tuesday's five-hour public hearing at the Fresno Convention Center was intended as an opportunity for people to comment on a pair of environmental impact reports for the Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield sections of the high-speed rail project.
The Valley sections are planned to be the first pieces built, starting next fall, for a 520-mile system of trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Some of the 50 or so speakers discussed how the anticipated path of the tracks would affect their businesses or property, or how the electric trains would mean fewer cars on the freeways to pollute the Valley's air.
But many took the opportunity to range far afield from environmental effects. Supporters proclaimed the train's prospects for economic development and job creation, while detractors decried its potential to be an expensive waste of billions of dollars.
Marie Elena Ramirez, the first speaker of the afternoon, came in search of one of the many jobs promised by the authority. "I brought my résumé, and I brought letters of recommendation," she said. "I'm ready to start today if you can give me a chance."
John Prichard, a representative of the International Union of Operating Engineers local chapter, said the high-speed rail project "is the only big job generator in the works right now" for people who are out of work and "a gift to the Central Valley."
Among those who addressed the rail line's physical effects was Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who encouraged the authority to build underpasses to connect streets from one side of the tracks to the other. "It's always better for the city to have underpasses as opposed to overpasses," she said.
She also said the city wants to make sure the authority lives up to its commitment to provide enough financial support to businesses that might have to be relocated to make way for the tracks.
Larry Thompson, who manages a Church & Dwight livestock-supplement plant in Madera County, said one of the potential routes north of Fresno would slice through his facility – something he said he didn't learn until last month. Before that, he said, "no one from the authority or any of the agencies had visited the plant nor did anyone contact me to find out about the possible effects to our facility."
Thompson said the environmental report fails to address "the economic and social impacts of losing a business such as ours."
"These must be addressed. ... The authority must do a much more extensive review of the businesses, farms and homes along each of the routes," he said.
Several other property and business owners complained that the tracks would disrupt or destroy their businesses.
Authority representatives took the critiques in stride.
"This is part of the process," said Dan Leavitt, the agency's deputy director for planning and environmental work. "These documents are intended to attract comments so these impacts, and the additional impacts that are brought up to us, can be addressed in the final version."
The authority's vice chairman, Fresno developer Tom Richards, said the agency's hearings are supposed to let them know "what we've done right and what we still need to do additional work on."
"And the only way we know that is by listening to the comments from the public," Richards added.
Before the hearing, a gathering of rail boosters including county supervisors, union representatives and clean-air advocates touted the project's potential to generate tens of thousands of construction jobs in the Valley and thousands more permanent jobs, as well as reducing traffic, congestion and air pollution from automobiles.
On the other side of the Exhibit Hall, protesters from the Central Valley Tea Party rallied on the M Street sidewalk, unfurling a banner that proclaimed, "There's no $ for high-speed rail."
Tea party organizer Steve Brandau said the project's cost in the state's current economic condition is only one of the group's concerns.
When California voters approved Prop. 1A, a $9.9 billion bond measure for high-speed rail, "they told us it was going to be along a transportation corridor," Brandau said. "Now it's going across agricultural land. To us, that's a huge environmental concern. We're destroying some of the world's best agricultural land to put a train track in."