BY Jill Cowan Californian staff writer email@example.com
Local residents mounted a rapid-fire attack on California's high-speed rail plans Tuesday evening at a community forum hosted by Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, in the Bakersfield City Council chambers.
The forum came in the wake of the nearly $100 billion project's newly revamped business plan, which California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Vice Chairman Tom Richards called "the most realistic apprisal of high-speed rail we've ever had."
But for most of those who attended the forum, that wasn't good enough.
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, who helped lead the meeting, announced Tuesday that she will co-author legislation giving state voters the chance to rethink their approval of a 2008 bond measure that launched the contentious rail project.
Dozens of community members voiced a litany of concerns about the complex project to Valadao and Grove.
The speakers -- who ranged from school kids to tea party members -- were largely preaching to the choir. No one spoke in support of the project as it exists, routed through downtown Bakersfield.
Raucous applause followed nearly every public comment, whether it merely criticized the rail authority's processes, or condemned the rail altogether as financially irreconcilable.
They found a receptive audience in Valadao, who has expressed skepticism about the business plan's job creation figures and said the project has been "rushed along," which is likely a sign that "the numbers" justifying the project aren't there.
In a Nov. 1 news release, he said, "Of course spending $98 billion will create a lot of jobs, just hiring people to carry all that money in wheelbarrows and stack it up would create a few thousand jobs."
Tuesday, he said that if "given no choice but scrap it," he'd vote to halt the rail in its tracks.
This may very well be the case, as the state Legislature approaches the crucial decision of whether or not to fund the project in California's 2012-2013 budget, which they will vote on early next year.
"I think the polling shows (people are) not excited about this project," he said.
Valadao added that while he supports Grove's proposed bill sending the HSR choice back to the voters, "that's just a slow way of killing it. We can shut it down just in the Legislature."
Grove said that even if the Legislature had already voted to delay the project indefinitely early next year, she would move forward with the bill.
In making her announcement, Grove said she found "unacceptable" new estimates that the project would cost $98.5 billion instead of the initial $33.6 billion price tag.
The project, planned to begin construction late next year in the Central Valley, was approved by 53 percent of voters in 2008's Proposition 1A.
Grove said she would work on the bill with Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, because she was "convinced the voters would rather spend their money repairing current infrastructure and, given the chance, will vote to put the brakes on this high-priced boondoggle."
She said that the Legislature would place the issue on the ballot, rather than through the initiative process.
At the end of the meeting, Grove called on the Bakersfield City Council and the Kern County Board of Supervisors to draft a resolution to oppose HSR.
Ultimately, though, those resolutions may hold limited weight, compared to a vote in the state Legislature -- and Valadao said he's heard people's concerns loud and clear.
If finding a way to stop the project is "what constituents want us to do," he said, "we'll do it."
Staff writer John Cox contributed to this report.