Kings County Was For HSR Before They Were Against It
As has been the case with the California HSR project for about a year now, all the action is in the Central Valley. That’s where the US Department of Transportation insisted the first HSR funds be spent on new construction, and that makes sense – the Central Valley is key to connecting SF and LA, since the project isn’t about better commuter rail, and after all the Valley has the state’s worst unemployment rates.
Today another step toward construction of that system was taken as the California High Speed Rail Authority announced that it had received $86.4 million in stimulus funds from the USDOT toward Central Valley construction:
The funds secured in the agreement were a portion of the May 2011 award, which was the re-allocation of funding from Florida. This amends a previous agreement signed December 2010.
The Authority applied for the funding in April and offered a 20 percent state match – therefore this agreement represents $108 million that can be applied to next year’s initial infrastructure construction in the Central Valley, the backbone of the statewide system.
When state matching funds are counted along with federal funds that have been awarded, the California HSR project has received $6.3 billion in funding. The first funds will start being spent next year on the Central Valley segment, with land acquisition as the first step. The Authority is looking to hire consultants to help with this process:
Within the next week or so, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will begin looking for companies to negotiate with property owners and seal the deals on rights of way for the first 120 miles or so of tracks in the Central Valley. It’s a contract that could be worth up to $40 million.
What sort of reception will they find? As is often the case, the reception will be mixed. Most farmers along the route will sell without a fuss, just as they do when a private developer comes along offering money to turn their land into subdivisions. And those developers don’t have the power of eminent domain. Farmers can’t say no to the state, they can only say no to an offered price. If they continue to refuse, they can take the state to court for a judge to settle the matter. But the 5th Amendment of the United States constitution and 200 years of Supreme Court precedent is absolutely clear that these farmers will have to sell if the state uses the power of eminent domain.
As we’ve pointed out before, this is nothing new for the Valley. In the 1960s Interstate 5 was built largely on an entirely new alignment, and agriculture didn’t vanish as a result. If a Highway 99 corridor were chosen for the HSR route, there would be farmers there who would be affected and would likely have to sell land as well.
Still, there are farmers who are planning to resist:
“It’s going to be the toughest possible reception we can give them,” said Helen Vierra Sullivan, whose family farms almonds north of Hanford. “My land is not for sale. … How can they take away my heritage, my livelihood, something my family has invested blood and sweat in for more than 80 years? It’s wrong on so many levels.”
Of course, nobody is telling her she has to lose her heritage and livelihood. It’s not as if she’d be the first person, farmer or urbanite, to lose their land to a transportation project. I won’t minimize the impact this would have, and it cannot be easy to have to sell. On the other hand, if this is the best route for the project, then the greater good of California does take precedence here.
Other anti-HSR activists are making their plans:
Farmer Frank Oliveira said more than 300 individual parcels in the county would be affected by the high-speed tracks.
Oliveira and others along the line from Laton through Hanford and Corcoran want to either have the route moved elsewhere or see the rail project stopped altogether, despite pledges from the rail authority that they will be compensated for their property, crops, homes or businesses.
“People here don’t really want their money. People just want them to go away,” said Oliveira, who runs MELs Farms. The company has several farms in the path of the train line near Hanford.
Oliveira said he expects property owners will listen politely “to whoever shows up and knocks on our door” to negotiate for their land. “Obviously we’re not happy or receptive to this process,” he said. “But as far as not talking to these people, we’ll listen.”
“There are people who will and should try to ensure they are adequately compensated for what the state is trying to do to them,” he added. “That’s only fair and right.”
But Oliveira believes some owners will take their battle for property into court as eminent domain cases.
Activists like Oliveira have had increasing success in getting Kings County officials to fall back from their originally strong support of HSR. It’s an echo of Palo Alto, whose City Council voted unanimously to endorse Prop 1A, and 60% of whose voters approved the proposition. In both places, a small number of loud voices have been enough to convince skittish politicians to cave on their HSR support.
Kings County Supervisors recently wrote to Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, to slam the HSR project and call on the FRA to delay approval of the EIR:
Citing federal law, the letter argues that the authority’s decision to build its first segment through Kings County farmland next year was based on a “pre-determined outcome” rather than through cooperation with local government agencies.
“Clearly, the refusal to coordinate and comply with the law has become the policy of the Authority, not the exception,” the letter states.
The letter, along with binders full of supporting documents, was scheduled to go by overnight service to Szabo and several others, including Authority Chairman Thomas Umberg, Assemblyman David Valadao, Rep. Jim Costa and the mayors of Hanford, Lemoore, Corcoran, Avenal, Visalia and Tulare.
“There’s been a huge effort to put the letter together,” said Colleen Carlson, Kings County counsel. “[People] are really concerned about what it will do to the community and the economy. They really want people to pay attention to the problem and look at other possibilities that may resolve that problem.”
Carlson’s comments are particularly interesting given that it completely ignores the fact that the reason there’s an HSR station in Hanford is because local governments organized and said they really, really wanted it. From a March 2009 Fresno Bee article (dead link, but I quoted it at the time):
“In 30 years, there’s going to be a million people in Tulare and Kings counties, southern Fresno County and northern Kern,” said Visalia Mayor Jesus Gamboa. “I don’t want the train to zoom by and we just look at it.”…
This week, the Visalia City Council got a word of encouragement from Bob Schaevitz, project manager for the Fresno-Palmdale stretch of the 800-mile rail line.
“This station makes a lot of sense,” Schaevitz said. “I’ve heard nothing negative about the station.”
But the community should make its voice heard before the environmental impact report is written, he said.
There’s precedent in speaking up. Two years ago, a coalition of city managers and elected officials from Visalia, Tulare, Corcoran, Kingsburg, Selma and Fowler went to the authority and asked for a station.
The group succeeded in getting the authority to change its route maps to include one potential station between Hanford and Visalia, and four more sites around Tulare and Goshen.
Now the goal is to get one of the sites changed from “potential” to “designated,” Gamboa said.
In other words, they were for HSR before they were against it.
We know there are a lot of HSR supporters in Kings County, including farmers. And they support it because they know that HSR is essential to bringing jobs and economic growth to Kings County. Agriculture will still be an important part of the county’s life, but it can be supplemented with other things without eating up farmland by locating new growth near the Hanford HSR station.
It’s a shame, then, that their county elected officials are so easily cowed by a small group of vocal opponents. One reason we are facing a political crisis in this country is because elected officials are so skittish that a small, persistent group of hecklers are able to get them to shrink back from supporting transformative projects that will help solve the problems we face. That lack of leadership doesn’t instill confidence in the public, and instead increases distrust of government.
Kings County knows that transportation projects can be built through it without causing disruption or harm, and that in fact they can cause a big economic boost. It would be a shame if they continued to oppose a better future for their county out of fear of offending a few vocal opponents in 2011.