“Train to Nowhere” or “Little Train That Could”?
Pick your vision. Critics say the train does not connect to a major hub while Governor Brown the other day, referring to high speed rail, cited the Little Train children’s book adding “I think I can…I think I can. ”
Judging by the number of anti-train signs on farm grounds in Kings County it appears they hope he can’t. So is just about everyone in this farm county against the controversial project?
Not so says tomato farmer Brad Johns who lives northeast of Hanford. Last week “the survey team was invited to come in,met with me and other farmers covering five miles of proposed track on the eastern alignment” says Johns. “Both myself and my neighbors were satisfied with how we were treated.”
Indeed the California High Speed Rail Authority is tiptoeing into the proverbial lion’s den in Kings County – meeting one on one with land owners and ”whoever wants to meet” says Central Valley Regional Director Diana Gomez.
Of course some Kings County farmers have been in the forefront in efforts to block the huge project through lawsuits that to date have succeed in holding up state funding through Prop 1A and sewing doubts on the federal level as well.
At a recent House hearing one vocal critic of high speed rail, Rep Jeff Denham said “A court has ruled …there is no state match.” CHSRA is supposed to make a $180 million match to federal dollars due in April.
Now the Governor has maneuvered to have a higher court review a Sacramento judge’s ruling by the end of this month.
Staff at the Authority’s Fresno office appear undaunted over all the noise hoping to work out any routing problems through Kings County “one by one.”
Discussion In Hanford
“We are meeting this week with the City of Hanford to go over issues” says Gomez who met with both administrative staff and the vice mayor February 5th. Gomez says the cost of paying for the infrastructure to build a station just east of town was on the agenda.
Other counties have asked for “reimbursement” of staff time if they work reviewing and evaluating plans and Hanford might be eligible as well. Such an agreement appears in the works with the City of Bakersfield. Fresno has several agreements in place.
Another other pot of money being discussed is a station planning grant that could be requested by the cities of Hanford and Visalia jointly. Then there is the issue if extending city infrastructure including sewer and water to the station site for which Hanford would want to be reimbursed an estimated $15 million says one source.
Addressing one of the largest businesses in the way of the planned alignment,Baker Commodities rendering plant east of Hwy 43, Gomez says “since we can’t avoid the plant we plan to mitigate by relocating part of the production facility away from the trains’ path and insuring that “they don’t lose one day of production because of the project.”
Gomez says she is “aware of the importance of the plant to the local dairy industry.”
Likewise with an alignment issue with the big pig farm run by Farmer Johns near Corcoran.”We’ve offered to meet with them on the highest level to minimize the impacts.”
“I found the train people very open” says Brad Johns adding that the planned route comes right through his living room as it does with some critics of the rail line.
“They said they would pay and I figure I will just call Dinuba House Movers and plop it down few hundred feet away and plant a Cypress grove to screen my view.” Johns says he is not worried about the potential noise saying the train “will just be a blue blur for a few seconds as it passes at 200 mph.”
Bring In The Locals
Unlike past forays into Kings County the assembled HSR staff team has a local flair for a change.
“We are looking to improve our relations in Kings county” admits Gomez who grew up in Parlier in nearby Fresno County and attended Fresno State graduating with an engineers degree.“We meet every month with Farm Bureau committees from Madera and Merced counties” says Gomez who is well aware that the mitigation work being planned along the route often flows from litigation with the same parties.
Helping Gomez in Kings County is former farm bureau chief in Tulare County Cheryl Lehn who grew up in Kings County and former Kings County chair of the Board of Supervisors Tony Oliveira, an economist and now consultant.
GeoTech Stand Off
Despite efforts to make inroads in the county the Authority can’t seem to convince Kings County to let their geotechnical survey team in to drill soil samplings that will be needed to do the construction. Unlike every other county – Kings County has refused to grant an encroachment permit to do the work along public grounds.Gomez says the Authority is looking at way to accomplish the task work – perhaps on public land or state owned right of way.
If Kings County bullet train opponents have stalled spending on the project with two rulings by that Sacramento Superior Court judge recently – an appeal to a higher court is now underway with a decision likely by the end of this month on whether the Authority can use Prop 1A state bond funds to build the project. Gomez has a different way to look at it suggesting “we are mandated to use those funds.”
Meanwhile the Authority continues to work on a final EIR for the 110 mile Fresno to Bakersfield leg east of Hanford with final approval by the HSR board coming as soon as April and federal concurrence by summer.
When will the first 29 mile segment north of Fresno break ground? ”People don’t often see a lot things that are happening because this is a design/build project in the design stage. But right of way is being bought and utilities are being relocated” adds Gomez.
If opponents complain the state‘s largest infrastructure project has been long delayed they don’t often admit it is their actions that often cause the delay. But in truth they would rather see the project dead in its tracks.
But Gomez says “people need to know – this project is moving forward and we are here to assist in minimizing impacts in any way we can.”