BY TIM SHEEHAN The Fresno Bee
California High-Speed Rail Authority leaders acknowledge they have "a lot of damage to undo" with valley farmers and property owners along the route of the proposed train system.
As political battles loom in Sacramento over issuing $2.7 billion in bonds to begin building the system later this year in the valley, authority chairman Dan Richard said a new business plan and new leadership are focused on "what it's going to take to make those things right" and rebuild the agency's credibility.
Richard was joined Monday by authority vice chairman Tom Richards, a Fresno developer, and board member Michael Rossi, a former vice president of Bank of America, in a meeting with Fresno County transportation officials and leaders from the county's cities about the $98 billion train project.
"All three of us are dealing with a history here that has not been good," Richard said Monday.
Richard and Rossi were named to the authority's board last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown; Richards was appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in late 2010.
A major obstacle will be acquiring the right of way for the tracks from businesses, homeowners and farmers along the route -- a challenge made greater by what Richard called the authority's "ham-handed" discussions with worried landowners.
"I'm extremely unhappy with the kind of approaches that have been made to farmers and business people along the potential alignments," Richard said. "Those have not been right or fair or just."
Monday was Richard's third visit to the valley in the past month. He met recently with farmers and property owners in Kings County, where frustration with the authority has resulted in lawsuits by residents against the agency and votes of opposition by the Kings County Board of Supervisors and the city councils in Hanford and Corcoran.
"One of the main problems that the High-Speed Rail Authority has had in the past is that it's been mainly focused on building a train," Richard said. "And when all you're focused on is building a train, you tend to tell people to get out of the way because you're coming through with the train."
Richard said he believes treating owners honestly may overcome some of the built-up mistrust. Once the authority completes its environmental review and selects a final route through the valley, it can begin negotiating to buy land.
"I think that as we are legally able to approach people, and particular if we come to them with the philosophy of making them whole as opposed to jerking them around, we hope that process will go more smoothly," he said.
Frank Oliveira of Hanford, whose family has five farms that would be affected by a potential route east of the city, remains unconvinced that the authority's new attitude will change opposition sentiments in Kings County.
"I think it's a good thing they're communicating better," said Oliveira, who attended Monday's meeting in Fresno. "But if that means they want to understand our concerns but they're still going to devastate us, then all we have is an understanding devastator.
"If somebody shows up with some substance, then we can sit down and look at this. But I don't see that happening."
Farmers in Kings County worry about tracks that slice through the middle of their parcels. For more than a year, Oliveira said, they sought answers from the authority about how they could reach their land on the other side of the tracks, but felt they couldn't get straight answers.
Now, Oliveira said, about the only option that would appease him and his neighbors is if the authority moved the tracks to the valley's west side, along Interstate 5, bypassing the cities along Highway 99.
But Oliveira acknowledged that is unlikely, given the schedule that the authority has to complete work on the first 130-mile stretch from Chowchilla to Bakersfield by the fall of 2017.
"Richard seems to be a little more into talking to us about it, and that's good," Oliveira said. "But if they stay on the same time schedule and don't address the flaws in the project, I don't know what talking is going to accomplish other than to stall us or waste more of our time."
The authority also is battling public perception over the rising cost of the rail program. Richard said he was "very unhappy with the way the high-speed rail authority did its projections in the past; I don't think that they were candid."
A 2009 business plan projected the cost to build 520 miles of high-speed tracks from Los Angeles to San Francisco at about $46 billion. The newest plan presided over by Richard, a former chairman of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board, created considerable sticker shock when it was released in November with a cost estimate of $98 billion.
Now, that plan is going through revisions that may be unveiled in the next month or two, Richard said. The emphasis, he added, is to find ways to "do it better, faster and cheaper."
A key challenge will be persuading state legislators to allocate money from Prop. 1A, a $9 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2008 for high-speed rail construction.
The state's auditor, legislative analyst and a Legislature-appointed peer review group all have raised concerns about the viability of the plan, particularly its reliance on federal contributions and the uncertainty of future funds from Congress.