Lois Henry

Saturday, Oct 20 2012 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: The bullet train's plan to nowhere omits details

By Lois Henry

Time for me to 'fess up.

I was glad when I learned in late 2010 that the bullet train was going right through my living room.

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Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Not only might I have a built-in buyer for my house in the then doornail-dead housing market, it also meant I had a built-in conflict of interest that barred me from writing about it for the paper.

One less can of worms to delve into. Or so I thought.

Then this summer I went to a meeting for property owners impacted by the train. It was filled with consultants and their maps. They were there to "answer questions!"

My only question was "when." I was determined to get a timeline out of them, even a general one, for how long I could expect to stay in my house.

It was like playing racquetball with Jupiter. All my questions went in, but nothing came back at me.

One consultant even wondered why I was so curious about the timeline. Gee, I don't know, dude. Maybe because you guys are talking about pulverizing the biggest investment of my life?

Ultimately, he told, me to go about my business as if the project would never happen because there was a chance it wouldn't.

How helpful.

I left with a notebook full of question marks and tried not worry when I saw articles about escalating costs, changes in the fundamental nature of the plan, route disputes with farmers and cities and, of course, Congress chopping down the money tree.

I've always been a supporter of high speed rail. I even wrote a column (before I knew the train was taking my house) that urged people to get more involved, demand answers and make it a better project rather than killing it out of sticker shock.

We need more ways to move people around California without impacting our crumbling freeways, which have their own funding problems.

I have to admit, though, it was getting harder to support the current high speed rail plan as a number of trusted sources, including the Legislative Analyst Office and Will Kempton, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, came out with damning reports about a lack of credible funding for the project.

Still, I tried to watch from afar. I was just a regular citizen on this one.

Then the City of Bakersfield voted to position itself to sue the High Speed Rail Authority. Why? Because the city feels it has made repeated requests for information about how the project would impact several major city properties--requests that all were ignored in the most recent environmental impact report on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment.

The city simply could not get answers from the authority, I was told by Assistant City Manager Steve Teglia and Planning Director Jim Eggert.

They both described an exasperating, years-long relationship with the authority in which city officials and staffers tried to engage in meaningful dialogue with the rail group only to be met with an oddly cheerful stone wall. Authority staffers said they wanted to work things out, share information, take concerns seriously. But they didn't.

Even seemingly simple issues, such as how the authority would replace parking spaces at Rabobank Arena taken by the train, were answered with "We'll tell you later."

"At first they said that would be in the draft EIR," Teglia said. "But all it says is that will be worked out when a final route is chosen."

The city had to be in a position to file a lawsuit quickly in case, again, detailed mitigation measures don't show up in the final EIR, which is when the final route will be chosen.

While the city and I are on the receiving end of the same "tell you later" message, my situation is a bit different. I'm on a section of the line that has no route alternatives.

My house will be bulldozed no matter what. That is, IF construction makes it this far south.

Which brings us to the money.

I tried to figure out how much each segment will cost and where the money's coming from as a regular citizen would, through reading the EIRs, press releases and other information on the High Speed Rail Authority's website.

I learned two things: one -- it's impossible to make heads or tails of the money that way and, two -- I have no patience for being a regular citizen.

I have contact numbers for authority staffers all the way up to the CEO and the board chairman and I used them.

The skinny is, the authority has about $6 billion (combo fed and state bond money) which CEO Jeff Morales insists will pay for a 130-mile section of track from the City of Madera to Allen Road in Bakersfield.

The authority has already put out a request for proposals on the first 23-mile section from Madera to just south of Fresno, which it says will only cost $1.2 to $1.8 billion.

There are a few significant problems with that plan.

First, they have a certified EIR on a route from Merced to Fresno. But the EIR from Fresno to Bakersfield is still in the draft phase. They're going out to bid on something that they only have partial environmental clearance to build. And that's assuming the Merced-to-Fresno EIR isn't thrown out in court. There are multiple lawsuits pending.

Second, they only have 15 percent of the design done, meaning someone still has to finish the majority of the design. They still need an agreement with Caltrans to move a section of Highway 99. Track drainage, signaling electrification, etc. still needs to be done. Oh, AND, they need to have money to connect to Amtrak wherever their new line ends in order to adhere to federal requirements that it be "useable."

And third, for just this one 23-mile section, the authority has seven full pages, single spaced, of properties it still needs to acquire: businesses, homes, schools, farms, you name it.

There's no way in Hades that's only going to cost $1.2 to $1.8 billion.

More likely that entire $6 billion will be gone before they get to Pixley.

Even if Morales is right and the $6 billion gets them all the way from Madera to Allen Road, that still only leaves $4.5 billion left in the state bond kitty. To access it, we have to have matching funds. And though Morales told me Friday the most likely source is the feds, without a major turnover in Congress, I doubt that'll happen.

At best, we'd be left with an "express" section of track for Amtrak.

And I'll be left with a house that has a giant X over its roof and no hope the state will get the money to buy it any time soon. Perhaps for decades.

I knew I shouldn't have reached into this can of worms.

Ick.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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