Congressional panel to scrutinize high-speed rail at Madera meeting

tsheehan@fresnobee.comMay 26, 2013 

— The head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority is being asked by a congressional subcommittee to provide a detailed account of how the state agency plans to spend more than $3 billion it has received from the federal government.

Dan Richard, the authority chairman, is one of a half-dozen witnesses invited by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, to testify at a hearing Tuesday in Madera.

Denham leads the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, which is part of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Denham has expressed skepticism over the project's $68 billion price tag, the authority's business plan and efforts to begin development of a statewide high-speed train system with construction in the San Joaquin Valley. Last week, he sent Richards a list of pointed questions for which he hopes to receive answers.

Those questions include where the state agency plans to acquire right-of-way property, "down to the parcel," for the entire San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route; how costs can be brought "more in line with the $33 billion cost that was sold to voters in 2008"; and details on how the authority reached its recommendation of the low bidder to design and build the first 29-mile construction segment in the Fresno-Madera area.

"The authority is talking about starting construction on this within the next couple of months" in Madera and Fresno, Denham said Thursday, "and I think people have the right to know what's going to go on in their community."

Denham said he is concerned about the process for how the authority will acquire right-of-way, "from appraisals to whether or not they're planning to use eminent domain."

He also hopes to hear about the project's potential effects on property owners, "whether it will affect harvesting this year or planting next year" on farmland and commerce for businesses along the route through Fresno.

Since 2008, "the project has more than doubled in cost and after more than $3 billion from the federal taxpayer, not one shovel has hit the ground," Denham wrote in his letter to Richard.

In a statement Friday, Richard said "the authority looks forward to having a constructive and robust discussion" about the rail project and developments over the past year.

$3 billion pledged

The Federal Railroad Administration has pledged more than $3 billion in stimulus and transportation funds to California's high-speed rail efforts, but the money included conditions that it be spent, by late 2017, for construction in the San Joaquin Valley in hopes of jump-starting job growth.

Tuesday's hearing is open to the public, but "because we are running this as a hearing and keeping to a tight time frame," Denham said testimony will be limited to the invited witnesses. "This is not a town hall format."

In addition to Richard, others invited to testify are Chowchilla farmer Kole Upton, vice president of the grassroots farm-advocacy group Preserve Our Heritage; Doug Verboon, chairman of the Kings County Board of Supervisors, which is suing the rail authority over its plans; Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau; Louis S. Thompson, chairman of the state High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group; and Al Smith, president and CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.

Denham said he believes the witness list will provide a balance of perspectives on the controversial high-speed-train project.

"We'll have landowners who have been working with the authority and have open lines of communication," he said. "The Fresno chamber has been very supportive of the project … and I think we've got a variety of witnesses that will be very critical and some who will be less critical."

Preserve Our Heritage and the Madera County Farm Bureau were among a handful of plaintiffs who sued the rail agency over its May 2012 environmental approval of the Merced-Fresno route; those cases were settled this year.

Kings County and two of its residents are also suing the authority, alleging that the agency's plan violates Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure that was approved by California voters in 2008.

A court hearing in that case is set for Friday in Sacramento.

Praise for board

Upton said he plans to praise the authority — conditionally — for making significant strides over the past year to cooperate with landowners in the Chowchilla area, where a Y-shaped junction is proposed to connect the valley backbone of the high-speed rail line with a section that will take trains through the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy, San Jose and San Francisco.

"They've hired more competent people, and they're doing a better job of listening," Upton said.

Recent discussions have given Upton and others hope that the authority will ultimately select a connection route that follows Highway 152 and Road 18. "They're doing some good things, but if they choose Avenue 21 or Road 13, we're back at war again," Upton said.

Smith said he plans to discuss the benefits of a high-speed rail system as an alternative to automobiles for moving people around the state.

"In order for companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in between, to do business with each other, there has to be an efficient mode of transportation and communication," he said.

"Then I want to talk about jobs, and what high-speed rail can do to change our total dependence on agriculture," he said. "Agriculture is the backbone, but this will give us a reason to diversify our economy … and encourage people to move their businesses to the interior of the state."

The Fresno Chamber of Commerce officially supports the high-speed rail project, Smith added, "but we've had some division within our organization."

Denham said he didn't know how many of the 30 subcommittee members will be at the hearing. Two other valley congressmen, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, are expected to attend.

The authority is seeking an exemption from having to obtain federal construction permits from the Surface Transportation Board.


IF YOU GO

WHAT: Congressional field hearing on oversight of California's high-speed rail project

WHEN: 10 a.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Madera Community College Center, Auditorium AM 120, 30277 Avenue 12, Madera

MORE: The hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, led by subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, is open to the public, but only invited witnesses will be permitted to testify.

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