Inga Barks

Saturday, Aug 13 2011 12:00 PM

INGA BARKS: High-speed rail 'great idea!' -- for some

By Inga Barks

I've been wracking my brain, trying to understand why no matter what anyone says about California high-speed rail, supporters come back with a stepford wife-like response about how great it is. How they trust in a government project, by the very government that's been working on variations of this train since the 1990s, only to come up with 190 miles of an 800-mile route, and local civic leaders who admitted this week that they can't run a dog pound!

And then I had a caller to my radio show Wednesday who answered the question. His name was Ruben, and he was a seemingly reasonable man who said things like "no matter how much it costs, high speed rail is worth it." When I asked him about homeowners in a proposed route who won't know for years if they'll be displaced, putting them and their property values in a holding pattern, Ruben said, "Houses are losing value right now anyway." When I mentioned the new study that says the 190-mile Central Valley stretch is already over budget, he said, "It's just a great idea." For Ruben, there was no farm land or home too sacred or cost too high because, as he said, "It's a great idea."

That was it! The answer! It doesn't matter what anyone says. It doesn't matter that there are multiple lawsuits against high-speed rail by cities that don't like the plan, or by citizens, both liberal and conservative, who don't believe that the High Speed Rail Authority knows what it's doing. It doesn't matter that the project's own researchers, along with Stanford University and financial experts, say the project is overpriced, has grossly overexaggerated the potential ridership by double, and has few if any investors to shore up the (estimated) $70 billion this train might cost above and beyond the $9 billion bond measure approved by the voters in 2008! None of this matters because the Rubens of the world have it in their heads that it's a "great idea."

And it IS a great idea. But so is winning the lottery! So is 100 percent employment! So is curing cancer! And? So, because it sounds nifty we're willing to set aside the latest research that shows thousands in the Central Valley alone being moved from homes and business, acres and acres of farmland being plowed over, and in more than 300 locations between Bakersfield and Fresno, the noise of a rushing train will impact "sensitive receivers" -- whatever that means. (I'm assuming it's gonna hurt some ears.)

Oh, and my favorite part? Kern County has been informed by the newly released EIR (environmental impact report) that one of its own recommended sites for a HSR maintenance yard puts both noise and hazardous materials within close proximity of schools.

Isn't this the same county that was in a near panic when an oil refinery wanted to use a hazardous material that some claimed would kill everyone within a two-mile radius if spilled! Now, we don't mind putting hazardous materials near school children if we can get to the Bay area quickly?

My theory? Whether high-speed rail ever actually happens, there are billions in state and federal funds to be spent on planning, development, environmental research and consulting. Whether it ever gets built, being able to report that one's political career included hooking the big contract for a train station or maintenance yard is a nice bragging right. Whether a track is ever put on the ground, your money is being spent right now to hire people to talk about laying down tracks. And if the research shows that plans for high-speed rail are riddled with problems, all the better! Everyone gets to go back to the drawing board and get paid to talk about new routes, locations and cost. And politicians get to brag about new partnerships that will create many jobs -- at consulting firms and research labs.

My caller Ruben was right. For many, high-speed rail is a "great idea!"

-- Inga Barks is one of three community columnists whose work appears here every Saturday. These are the opinions of Barks, not necessarily The Californian's. You can send e-mail to her at ingakbarks@gmail.com. Next week: Ric Llewellyn.

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