Friday, October 28, 2011

Notes from High Speed Rail discussion at Fresno State

NOTE: This post was edited at 11:45pm Friday to add the section on questions from the audience.

Last night, Fresno State invited four speakers to present their thoughts on the High Speed Rail (HSR) project and answer questions from the audience. The forum was created for students taking a class on HSR, but this presentation was open to the general public.

The format was as follows: Four speakers on the stage were each given 10 minutes to talk about the project. After the speeches were done, questions were asked by the moderator, Bill McEwen from the Fresno Bee, and then the general audience.

Generally, the speeches followed prepared notes. The speakers did not address each others thoughts until the Q&A section, but even then, discussion was focused to/from the audience member and not between the speakers.

The speakers were, in order of speaking:
-Former Assembly Member (29th) Mike Villines, a Fresno Stat alumni. He spoke in favor of HSR.
-Hanford Assembly Member (30th) David Valadao, who spoke against the project.
-Daniel Krause, who works with Rescue Muni, among other organizations, spoke for the project.
-Elizabeth Alexis who works with "Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design" and spoke against the project.

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Today I will present the notes I took during the debate. These notes are as accurate as I was able to do, and if I misheard someone or made any other mistake, I apologize and will immediately fix it if brought to my attention.

Tomorrow I will be in LA for the USC-Stanford game, so on Sunday I will try and write up thought on what was discussed. There are many things that need to be clarified, although I'm sure Robert Cruickshank will beat me to that this weekend.

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I arrived at 6:50 for the 7pm start time, although the speakers didn't begin until 7:10pm. In standard fashion for this type of event, the front-center rows were empty and the back was quite full. Rest assured, this photo does not show the extent of the crowd in the large room.

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Fresno State students generally sat in the back. The members of the public appeared to be mostly composed of white people in their senior years.


Mike Villines spoke first. he said he brought a video, but the organizers were unable to get it to run. His points were as follows:

-This is one of the first times a major investment/jobs program is starting in the Central Valley (CV) first. Neither the feds or the California Legislature ever focuses on the CV first, so we should embrace it.

- This project is in contrast to the traditional oil transportation, like highways and car and planes. Not only is it cleaner and safer, but in the end, it will be cheaper.

- All "against" arguments are always the same. "Now is not the time", "let's do this later", etc.
--Lincoln built the trans-continental railroad during the civil war, when budgets were tough
--Ike built the interstate system, starting in the middle of nowhere, in farm country
--The same naysaying comments were against starting the UC system
--Same comments against vital water system
---Where would we be without these grand projects?

-Ridership numbers have been independently reviewed and verified

-Fares will be competitive

-Outreach has NOT been perfect, but there have been "hundreds" of meetings, so anyone who says there hasn't been outreach is lying.

-There will be disruption, but it will be mitigated

-There is a huge cost to do nothing. Without HSR, roads must be widened, airports must be expanded.

-HSR will minimize urban sprawl. Sprawl is the #1 taker of Ag land.

He ended by telling a story of how Kennedy set the goal for moon landing, and it happened ten years later. He said that the people in the control room at the time had an average age of 28, meaning they were 18 when the goal was set, the same age as many of the students in the room.



David Valadao spoke next. He brought a slideshow which they were able to play. The slideshow was titled "Time to pump brakes on HSR"

I took pictures of the slides, and will add details to clarify what he was saying while the slide was being presented.

Slide 1:
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-3% is in reference to the idea that the project only has $3bn in funds and will cost $100bn by his estimate

-He says that the maintenance facility will bring 1,500 jobs to Fresno...but 1,500 businesses will be moved.
--By his estimate, 6,000 to 15,000 jobs will be lost because not a single business that gets displaced will elect to reopen in California.
-Every single business that gets mitigation money will close up and move to Florida. California is too hostile with taxes and regulations and such and nobody wants to live here.

Ed note: For someone whose job is to represent Californians, he sure seems to hate the state.

Slide 2
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-Argues that mitigation money will be equal to market value, which is less than replacement cost. Uses example of car. Says HSR would give him $2,000 for his car but it'll cost much more to buy a new one.

-HSR already affecting budgets today because we're already paying interest on the bonds.

Slide 3
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-Claims that price of HSR went from $33bn in one day to $42bn the next day. Tells story about how he asked the HSR people why this happens and was told "the old number was assuming the entire project was built in one day, the new number is the real one"
*Old people laugh*

-Claims $100bn is an easy number to estimate

-"My ranch isn't a transportation corridor"

-Argues that it will always be cheaper to drive. Uses story about 5 kids (or family of five?) getting in a van to Disney, much more efficient than paying for each individual ticket.

-Too expensive for college kids

-Too expensive for commuters. Commuters cannot afford $2,000+ a month in HSR transportation costs. Cheaper to move, buy a bigger house.

Slide 4
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-Makes emotional appeal that farms aren't just about land, it's about the experience and family history
--Personal value

-States that HSR is NOT a new and exciting idea. Has been talked about for 40 years, old technology.
--Goes off on tangent about how kids these days want things to be mobile, ipads etc.
----HSR is the opposite of mobile, it's fixed (not portable).
--Says airplanes are the future because they're mobile, can get you from anywhere to anywhere and are exciting.

-Claims he has recently talked with Southwest Airlines and they are totally committed to taking people from Fresno to Mojave, no need for HSR to do that.

Ed Note: This whole train of thought was quite....odd. And a flat out lie (see moderator question).

Closing slide
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-Claims that expansions of things like the 180 are ok because that "needs to be there".



Daniel Krause spoke next. No slides were presented for the last two speakers.

-HSR is cleaner, safer form of transportation

-Saves farmland, reduces sprawl, has health benefits.

-HSR will be a catalyst for shift in land use patterns.
--Orients local planning towards HSR stations
---renewed focus on city centers will save farms

-HSR is already funding planning processes in cities via grants
--"Catalyst for farmland preservation"
---HSR on it's own won't preserve land, but the focus into the city that the project brings will

-5,000 acres will be lost to HSR construction + indirect losses near the construction.
--EIR is being constantly changed to respond to these concerns

-Current losses dwarf this
--Claims that 1.2 MILLION acres of farmland will be lost by 2050 if urbanization continues as is.

-Won't eliminate sprawl but key component to turn ship around

-Will expand use of and investment in transit
--Most trips under 2 miles, focus on transit will get people to walk to store to buy bread and milk, save air quality
*Old people in audience laugh loudly*
"I...I don't understand why that comment got laughter?"
*Old people laugh again*


-Improvements in air quality and public safety
--35,000 killed a year in cars in America.
---In 47 year history, not a single fatality in Japanese HSR
----Safest form of transportation ever invented

-Driving most dangerous form of transportation.
--Someone needs to calculate lives that will be saved by HSR and put monetary number to it


Finally, it was time for Elizabeth Alexis to speak. Elizabeth began by claiming that she is pro-HSR but against the way the project is being conducted. However, based on everything else she said, this comment did not appear to be true at all. More on that when I do my complete analysis.

-Rail will increase population, actually create more sprawl

-People do NOT want to live near HSR
--HSR stations will be full of taxis and buses and nobody will want to live near the station
---HSR stations are somewhere between a train station and an airport in terms of impact/desirability,

-Job numbers claimed by HSR authority are simply temporary construction jobs, and "fake" extensions of that, for example a job is counted if a construction worker shops locally.
--Construction = huge amount of pollution created

-Business losses will be permanent

-No benefits to CV if project not completed
--Says CV will have to deal with years of disruption and pollution and may be left with something that is never used

-"Central Valley is the guinea pig"

-97% of money is missing
--Bond does not create more revenue (no new taxes) meaning it is taken from general fund

-HSR is directly competing with CSU/UC system for funds because it all comes out of general pot.
--For every $10bn allocated to HSR, the costs to each CSU student will be $2,000 per year

-Environment is too hard to create revenues, there will be no tax increases to pay for HSR.

-HSR will be "pot committed" (Ed: I believe that's the term she used)
--Explanation: Once you start throwing money at project, it's too hard to stop because nobody wants a half finished project
---Further explanation that fear of being pot committed results in heavy restrictions on bond releases to ensure this doesn't happen.
-----California history has shown that every major project like this has ended badly.

Ed note: I didn't quite understand if she was saying the project will keep sucking up money or won't be due to restrictions placed on bonds, but she said it in the order I noted above. That line of thought continued:

-Legislature will be forced to vote yes on funding plans as a result of above

-She said opponents are constantly criticized and called names, detracting from conversation.
--HSR is being run like a political campaign, not a public infrastructure project

-Too many consultants. Each segment has own set of consultants, each set of consultants hires own set of consultants, each set of new consultants hire their own consultants for multiple levels of consultants.

-Consultants mean project is not listening to feedback

-Goes back to point that CV will deal with all the problems and not get results.


And that's it for the straight speaking section.

Next up the moderator asked some questions based on what had been stated.


Question 1 was directed at Villines and asked why there is an artificial 2012 deadline that the agency must rush to reach before the funds are withdrawn.

Answer: The money is to get people to work, and we want that to happen now. The project is absolutely not being rushed as it's been in motion for many years


Question 2 was directed at Elizabeth. The question was about how Elizabteh had claimed that the CV was a guinea pig and there would be much construction pollution. Wouldn't the same pollution be created if the CV segment is built last?

Elizabeth answered that she does not understand why the project MUST start in the middle. She claims that she has asked the HSR people and nobody has explained the advantages of starting in the CV and working out to the coasts.

She then went on to say that the project should only begin if there is enough money locked up to get an initial operating segment done. She quickly clarified that she meant a "real" initial segment, like San Jose to Bakersfield or LA to Fresno.


Question 3 was to Daniel Krause. He asked if Daniel could clarify why if HSR must go through transportation corridors, why they aren't doing that near Hanford.

First he began by referring to the last question and clarifying that yes, the initial segment in the CV must have independent utility, and if all else fails, Amtrak will use it to cut off 45 minutes from the existing trip.

He then explained that existing corridors includes utility corridors and the agency is allowed to move off a corridor when necessary or when requested to.


Question 4 was to David Valadao and went along the lines of "isn't it true that there is no doubt that the first segment will get built?'

He started his response by saying that he disagreed.
*old people cheer*
He stated that lots of people are concerned, and that it will be tough to kill the project but it's not a sure thing.
*more cheers*

Then went on to say that in his personal experience, he has ridden Amtrak and it was empty. He also stated that the existing line is empty and that it is remarkably foolish to build a brand new train line, 2 miles parallel to the existing train, and that running them both made no sense. He closed by replying to the last comment of the initial segment being available to amtrak if nothing else is build and said "that would be a disaster".


Question 5 was also directed at David Valadao, and I was quite surprised by the tone the moderator took.

I did not get down the exact wording of the question, but I will paraphrase it as best as I can remember.

"You stated that Southwest was more than willing to come serve Fresno and fly people to the Mojave. Fresno has tried every trick in the book to get Southwest to come here, including $3 million in direct annual subsidies, and they refuse to serve this market. Why are they willing to serve Fresno if you ask them to?'

Ed Note: Bill, as a longtime writer to the Fresno Bee, knows better than most what Fresno has tried to get service from Southwest and other budget airlines.

The answer was that "Southwest doesn't want subsidies" they want to fly a profitable route, and if there is profit to be made in Fresno, they will gladly take it, like any business would. He said his comment about Mojave was a joke, but he could see service between Fresno and San Jose, but that Southwest would only do that if they could fill a plane. They wouldn't serve Fresno if only three people wanted to board.

Bill followed up by asking how much encouragement Southwest gave about serving Fresno.

Valadao conceded that the answer was none.

Then followed up by saying he was interested in knowing how much it would cost to widen the highways and improve the airports.



At this point, the floor was opened to the public. People could line up and ask questions to either a specific speaker or anyone who was willing to answer.

The first question was
-Does the legislature need to further approve this project or is it ready to begin?
David Valadao responded that no, it just needs continued funding.
Elizabeth Alexis said the project will keep coming to the state for more funds, and that will have to be approved.
Mike Villines disagreed with Elizabeth, saying that the money exists, and the people voted for it, and it's ready to be built.
Elizabeth replied by saying that nothing can be built until they have enough money to build a real operating initial segment.


Next question was a speaker from Tulare County that was directed at Valadao. It was less of a question, an more of a statement. I will paraphrase the legnthy statement he made:
"Valadao, you were only just elected recently. We've been talking about this for much longer. Hanford asked for rail to go through the farm and not the city. Visalia asked for rail to come closer to them. The county approved this. The HSR people listened to what the elected officials wanted and that's why the route goes the way it does. To say they aren't listening is wrong, that's why the route is what it is. And obviously rail can't following existing transportation corridors exactly. Rail can't go down A street and make a sharp right on 1st street*, that's impossible. So yes, rail has to curve and cut through land.. It's hypocritical to say there was no public process."
*Ed note: The speaker used different street names, I presume real ones, but I didn't note them.

*large applause from the back of room, where FSU students sat*

Valadao answered that no, that wasn't true. The county didn't ask for this

The person asking the question interrupted to ask "You're saying the county did NOT ask for this? Because I was at the meeting when they did"

Valadao said he would like to see the record of the meeting.

Elizabeth jumped in to say that while Visalia did want a station, the county did not. She said Kings county didn't want HSR through their cities or through their farmland, but decided to side with the cities because it was better to agree with their request then to not do anything at all.

The person asking the question finished by saying he knew the documents exist.



The next person (from Fresno) said he is a fan of Amtrak northbound, but not southbound, because he refuses to ride a bus. He asked why don't they start building between Bakersfield and LA?

Daniel Krause said that they need a straight section of track to start with.

The person asking the question interrupted to say that the desert is straight, and Daniel Krause said no, there are mountains.

David Valadao added that he agreed, and they should totally start between Bakersfield and LA.


Next question: "Does nobody remember what happened with Diablo Canyon? This thing will cost us $100bn and that doesn't even include the electricity? Where does the electricity come from?" the question continued for quite a bit of lengthy time before the moderator interrupted him and told him to ask a question. He ended with "why are we buying trains from the communist china? We need to do this in America, go america!"
*crowd cheers*

Mike Villines began by saying that all the construction will be local and American. The person asking the questions interrupted with "but the trains, where do the trains come from! They're communist trains!"
Mike Villines continued by talking about how California is the busiest air corridor in the country, and we can't add flights, we need trains.


The next question was "Why not follow I-5?'

Daniel Krause responded that the train needs to serve the people. The person asking the question said the CV doesn't matter and nobody from the CV will ride the train anyway, it should follow the I-5. Daniel Krause just repeated that the train's job is to go where the people are.


The next question was directed at Mike Villines. The person talked about how the pro-HSR people never say real numbers, and the anti-HSR people always come prepared with lots of numbers. He said that if the HSR people want to talk to him about buying his land, they need to come with real numbers. He also asked how the initial segment will run without electricity.

Mike Villines stated that we all get numbers on Tuesday.

The person asking the question continued: We get no information, they don't give us maps or numbers, they don't tell us anything. He says he found out the line will run through his land because a neighbor told him, and he called the HSR people and they denied it, but eventually he got hold of a map that confirmed his land was going to be taken. And even then, he had to take a picture of the map because he wasn't allowed a copy.

Elizabeth agreed and said the process was broken and that the HSR people don't tell anyone anything. She went on to talk about how the process should be like France, and they need to hold 3,000 conversations before drawing a single map.


The next person to ask a question was a man from the Fresno Hispanic Chamber of commerce and the regular Chamber of Commerce. He said he agreed we need to talk numbers - unemployment numbers. He stated that our ancestors left us Hoover Damn, Eerie Canal, etc, what will this generation leave the next ones?
*I believe there was some audience booing*

Valadao began his answer by saying that the best way to create jobs is to have a smaller government. he said that HSR won't create jobs, it will destroy 6,000-15,000 jobs in Fresno alone. he said that HSR will kill private jobs to try to build government jobs, and that always fails.

The man who asked the question continued "We need the money for jobs, we have the money, are you saying we should throw it away?"
*audience shouts yes, boo, throw it out etc*

Elizabeth stated that while the job situation was serious, HSR is not the only solution. She repeated the idea that just 2,000 jobs will actually be created from the project (her "real" numbers)

She then went on to say that because HSR is funded from the general fund, teachers will lose their jobs, as schools will compete with rail for funding. She stated that the current businesses along the line are located there because they like being by freight rail, and once they're gone, they'll disappear forever because the location advantage is gone.

She then made the comment that FURTHER job losses would come when firms in places like SF, that have satellite branches in Fresno, close their valley branches because HSR would be SO convenient that these businesses would have no need to have offices in the valley- their employees would simply come for the day as needed.

The moderator, Bill, then asked "What firms are these based in SF with branches in the valley...?"

Elizabeth replied "like insurance companies and such". She said they'll all consolidate in SF.


And at this point it was 8:45pm and I had agreed to meet someone at 9pm, so I had to step out.

Hope you enjoyed the notes!

1 comment:

  1. Just an FYI, if Elizabeth is using the terrm the way I think, "pot committed" is a poker term. It means that you have put so many of your chips into the pot you have to see it through to the end, win or lose.
    Jim

    ReplyDelete