Ground broken on troubled high-speed rail project

Ground broken on troubled high-speed rail project


Ashley SwearenginYesterday in Fresno the California High-Speed Rail Authority officially conducted the groundbreaking ceremony for its bullet-train project – but no dirt actually was turned.

After an hour of speeches, a “ceremonial signing” of a railroad tie was conducted by dignitaries from the federal, state and local governments. Not a shovel was in sight. The ceremony is online here.

Speaking first was Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican and major project supporter, who two months ago lost a campaign to become the state’s controller. “This is the day we officially commemorate the beginning of the nation’s first high-speed rail project,” she said. “A project that promises to connect Northern, Central and Southern California together like never before. This project establishes Fresno as the Central Cog, the essential connection point for Northern and Southern California. This day has been in the making for 30 years.”

Next spoke CHSRA Chair Dan Richard, the master of ceremonies:

“Today we’re gathered here to celebrate a demarcation, a new phase for the high-speed rail program for California. The conceptualization, the environmental analysis, the appropriations, the litigation, the planning, the site preparation, and the demolition…. They’re all behind us. Now we build. We’re entering a period of sustained construction on the nation’s first true high-speed rail system and for the next five years here in the Central valley and for the decade beyond that we will be building across California.”

Gov. Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown spoke last and dug into his dictionary to call project opponents “pusillanimous,” which Merriam-Webster defines as, “weak and afraid of danger; lacking courage and resolution; marked by contemptible timidity.”

But he did concede a question, “Where the hell are we going to get the rest of the money?” To which he quickly replied, “Don’t worry about it, we’re going to get it.” More detailed answers may come Friday when he releases his state budget proposal for fiscal year 2015-16, which begins on July 1.

The shovel-less groundbreaking was for the initial segment, 29 miles between Madera and Fresno. But even for this initial segment, many obstacles remain across the tracks.

As reported two weeks ago, although Bakersfield dropped its lawsuit against the project, six other lawsuits remain.

The CHSRA has not finished an environmental analysis on all the required segments to build the initial operating segment.

And the CHSRA has obtained only about 20 percent of the properties needed for the first segment. It still needs to get 80 percent of the properties, then demolish any structures on them.


Several attorneys talked to said the groundbreaking ceremony was more appearance than reality.

Stuart Flashman is an attorney for Kings County and two local citizens opposing the high-speed rail project. He said:

“My clients understand that the Authority, having promised the Federal Railroad Administration that construction would start in 2012, are feeling that they need to put a spade in the ground, at least for show. That is all this groundbreaking is. It is certainly not earth shattering, or even ‘groundbreaking’ in terms of actual progress of the Authority’s plans.”

Said his colleague, Mike Brady:

“Instead of a groundbreaking, this should be called a ‘breaking of faith’ with Central Valley residents, who are being treated very shoddily. Only a fraction of the land value is being offered to landowners, despite past promises; their rights are being stepped on.  Overall, the Authority is two years behind in its critical schedule. Very little ‘contiguous’ land has been acquired. That has not allowed the Authority to make real progress in laying track. The groundbreaking is a charade.”

The Sacramento Bee reported another irony:

“Despite the downtown Fresno setting for Tuesday’s ceremony, the first major construction on the Madera-Fresno segment is anticipated to be at the eastern edge of Madera, where an elevated bridge will be built to span the Fresno River, Highway 145 and Raymond Road just west of the existing BNSF Railway freight tracks.”

Another problem is the clock is ticking rapidly on the expiration of President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided money nationally only for “shovel-ready” projects.

Those federal funds of $3.3 billion must be spent by Sept.  30, 2017. An accounting of the spending is due 6 months prior to that deadline.

Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases.

Tags assigned to this article:
CHSRAJerry BrownAshley SwearenginKathy Hamilton

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