Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

High-speed rail route change unlikely to sway Valadao

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

UPDATE (Monday, Nov. 18, 4 p.m.):
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, was traveling Friday and unavailable to comment for the original blog post, according to his staff. Late Friday, his staff provided this statement in response to The Bee’s query about whether Valadao thought his opposition to high-speed rail may have swayed the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s preliminary selection of a Fresno-Bakersfield route that does not go through property owned by the Valadao family dairy business:

“Congressman Valadao absolutely does not believe his objections influenced the agency’s recent vote. The High-Speed Rail Authority has never concerned themselves with Congressman Valadao or his constituents, why would they begin to now? Their refusal to respect the Central Valley has only added to the widespread opposition to this project.”

ORIGINAL POST (Friday, Nov. 15)

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s vote last week to identify a “preferred alignment” for its Fresno-Bakersfield section is unlikely to appease Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, an ardent opponent of the agency’s bullet-train plans through his stomping ground in Kings County.

In April, the authority’s staff was recommending a route that would bypass Hanford on the city’s west side — and which would run directly past three properties owned by Valadao Dairy, the congressman’s family farming business. Those parcels amount to about 509 acres and have a combined assessed value of more than $1.8 million, according to a database on the Kings County Assessor’s Office website.

But the latest route choice, which will be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for evaluation, bypasses Hanford on the east. That may still be too close for comfort for Valadao, whose family, parents or uncle own a dozen properties west of Highway 43 between Idaho and Lansing avenues south Hanford — and within a mile of the would-be route for the high-speed tracks.

Valadao was traveling from Washington, D.C. to his district Friday and unavailable to comment on the rail authority’s route vote, his staff said.

Cows at the Valadao Dairy farm south of Hanford pay little attention to freight railroad tracks that run behind the fence in the background.

“However, Congressman Valadao has been both consistent and clear when discussing his opposition to high-speed rail since entering public life, regardless of the proposed track location,” said Anna Vetter, his communications director. “One of Congressman Valadao’s original criticisms of the High-Speed Rail Authority was their refusal to truly identify a route. This has created confusion for hundreds, if not thousands, of families and businesses in the potential wake of this project.”

Valadao came under scrutiny this summer after he offered an amendment to a budget bill that, if it becomes law, could stall or permanently derail construction of the high-speed rail project. Valadao, a member of the potent House Appropriations Committee, proposed the amendment and argued for its adoption in the committee apparently without informing his colleagues that his family holdings included property along or near the rail routes. The issue raised questions about whether or not Valadao faced a conflict of interest because of the potential effects of the rail routes on property values — often cited by project foes as one factor for their opposition.

Valadao’s amendment was approved by the committee. But the ultimate fate of Valadao’s efforts remains in limbo because of the budget stalemate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which is in the hands of Democrats.

That federal air penalty is really a local DMV fee, money stays here

Valley motorists have been paying most of a $29 million federal dirty-air penalty since 2011. It’s the extra $12 on your annual Department of Motor Vehicle registration fees.

The federal mandate for the penalty would be lifted if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that the San Joaquin Valley has attained the one-hour ozone standard. Local air leaders this month are approaching EPA with a historic attainment request.

But what has the federal government been doing with the $29 million each year? I asked the EPA.

“Characterizing the DMV fees as a federal penalty is inaccurate, and it’s the air district that has received the $29 million, not the federal government,” a spokeswoman told me this week.

I confess I have written about the air district part of that statement. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has been open about the money for years. It is used in such Valley clean-air programs as diesel replacement.

But almost every time I write about it, someone writes or calls and asks why Valley residents have to send millions of dollars to the federal treasury. That is not happening.

When the “penalty” was enforced, the Valley air district was allowed to collect the fee. A few years ago, the state law gave the district the option to collect these DMV fees — whether or not the district is under a federal mandate.

Local air leaders say if the Valley attains the one-hour ozone standard, they want to eliminate the mandate.

The next question: How would the public feel about continuing the $12 fee to help achieve the much tougher eight-hour ozone standard as well as the tiny particulate standard?

Expect that question and discussion to come up later on.

Breathe now, soot season on its way

People are getting a breather between dirty-air seasons right now in the San Joaquin Valley — ozone season is almost gone and soot season hasn’t quite started.

Which is worse, ozone or soot? It’s definitely soot, which is my shorthand term for specks of soot, chemicals and other microscopic debris.

These specks account for the vast majority of early mortality related to dirty air.  In the air-quality community, the specks are known as PM-2.5.

About 670 premature deaths will be eliminated by 2019 when the region is supposed to achieve the PM-2.5 standard, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Where are the deaths occurring? Kern County has nearly a third of them with 207 a year, according to the research. Fresno County has 172. Tulare County has 86.

There’s a lot of other folks suffering, too.

Research shows there will be reductions hospital admissions related to heart attacks and asthma. More than 125,000 days of lost work will be eliminated.

When you add up all costs for those non-fatal health problems, you get $102 million total, the air district says.

Rim fire footprint would encompass Valley’s 5 largest cities

The Rim fire is winding down, now 92% contained at a cost of more than $125 million. But it’s the physical size of the fire that continues to capture the imagination — what does 257,135 acres look like?

Mono Lake, on the east side of the Sierra, has a footprint of 45,000 acres. Lake Tahoe is about 122,000 acres. That’s not a bad comparison if you’ve seen those lakes.

Fellow reporters have resorted to all kinds of comparisons. I recently heard a network news anchor refer to it as a third the size of Rhode Island. Others compare it to the area of Los Angeles or San Francisco.

So this is my attempt at putting the San Joaquin Valley into this picture. I wondered if the fire footprint was big enough to encompass the Valley’s major cities, including Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, Modesto and Visalia.

Yes, they would all fit within that footprint.

Bakersfield had the largest physical footprint I found. It is 146.6 square miles, according to the U.S. Census. Fresno, which has a bigger population than Bakersfield, is only 112.3 square miles.

The Rim fire is 402 square miles. And any way you look at it, this is the third largest fire on record in California.

Heat, yes, but ozone needs sunlight, too

My story Sunday on cooling down Fresno to help lower ozone was directly at heat, but air temperature is not the only part of the equation.

On Sunday, nature demonstrated why heat isn’t the only factor. It was 102 degrees but just cloudy enough to slow down the chemical reaction that makes ozone.

There was no breach of either federal ozone standard on Sunday — in the middle of August with very light winds and 100-plus degrees.

Ozone needs oxides of nitrogen from combustion sources, such as your car’s engine, and reactive organic gases, such as fumes from gasoline or dairies. But without both warmth and sunlight, the gas doesn’t form as well.

Take a look at the numbers for Sunday. Fresno’s three monitors never got above 70 parts per billion for ozone. The federal eight-hour standard is 75 parts per billion, and it’s officially an exceedance when the average hits 76.

Monday looks like a similar cloudy start to the day. I saw lightning over the Sierra. If the weather stays dark and unsettled, there may be another August day in the Valley without an exceedance of the ozone standard.

One-hour, eight-hour standard, it’s confusing

I apologize if there’s been some confusion about an air-quality blog I wrote a few weeks ago — remember the one about the “silver lining” during an ozone siege?

A few readers have asked how there could be a silver lining if there are more eight-hour breaches of the standard than last year. The silver lining — or good news — was that the air didn’t breach the one-hour standard.

Eight-hour is a much tougher standard, the average of eight one-hour readings. The one-hour standard refers to the peak reading during a one-hour period.  They are quite different.

Now, let’s talk about comparing the eight-hour exceedence totals with last year’s totals. It’s a dangerous thing to do early in the season.

At the time of that blog item, there were 23 exceedences this year compared to 17 last year. So isn’t the air actually getting worse? Why didn’t I point that out in the item? Well, check it now, and you’ll see why it’s dangerous to jump to any conclusion right now.

There are 25 exceedences through this week, compared to 26 at this point last year. I was simply giving a running total in my blog item a few weeks ago.

One last thing. Improvement is a gradual thing in air quality, and the San Joaquin Valley is far from clean or healthy.

In summertime, the goal is eliminating ozone exceedences. Last year, the Valley had 105. Alongside South Coast Air Basin in the Southern California area, that’s the worst in the country.

But compare the numbers this year to 2003.

There were 38 exceedences at this point in 2003, and there had been a one-hour exceedence. During that period in 2003, I counted 17 days when the ozone concentration was above 100 parts per billion — an exceedence happens at 76.

This year, there have been 25 exceedences and only three days when ozone exceeded 100 parts per billion. Clearly, the air quality is improving, but not very quickly for many people.

Air-quality activists say the improvement comes partly because of the relocation of the Arvin air monitor in Kern County. That air monitor showed the most exceedences in the nation. The new one — two miles away — doesn’t record as many bad days.

There are many other arguments about the improvement. I’ll leave that for the readers to comment.

I want to leave you with the clear message: A few weeks ago during record-breaking heat, the Valley didn’t exceed the one-hour standard, which is connected with a $29 million annual fine paid mostly by motorists here.

But the air still is a long way from the goal.

Get your summer ozone game on

Ozone season came back with a vengeance in early June as temperatures spiked over the very warm weekend. Get your summer game on — avoid the afternoon peaks.

A breezy May left the San Joaquin Valley with only eight days when the ozone exceeded the federal standard.  It’s easy to forget about air quality in those conditions. Now the heat and ozone are here.

Over the weekend, the problem areas for ozone included Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield, Hanford, Arvin, Porterville and Sequoia National Park.

Ozone is a corrosive gas that forms in warm, stagnant weather. It attacks the skin, eyes and lungs.

Even for healthy adults, it’s not a good idea to exercise in the late afternoons when this stuff peaks. If you have small children, try to keep them inside on the bad days.

How will you know when there’s a bad day ahead? Check with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District for daily forecasts.

Dueling memos tout front runners in 16th Senate race

A month ago, Hanford Republican Andy Vidak released the results of a 16th State Senate District survey that — surprise — said he was the “clear front runner” in the race to replace Michael Rubio, who resigned in February.

Not to be outdone, Vidak’s main opponent, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, put out her own survey memo this week that found a tight race — but with her as “the favorite.”

These dueling memos, which always seem to be addressed to “interested parties,” are staples of campaigns and often feel like spin. After all, who knows how each question was asked? In what order? Were opposing candidates called ugly names before the key questions were posed?

No doubt there was legitimate polling done, but that isn’t always what is publicly released in these campaign memos.

Both sides in their respective memos did say that only “likely voters” were polled. Interviews were done in English and Spanish. Those with both landline and cell phones were interviewed.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff

Vidak’s found him up 45% to 21% over Perez when those polled were asked who they were backing in the special election. It also found him with a sizable edge in name identification. And it said 22% of those polled were undecided.

Some of the findings had the air of believability. For instance, it stands to reason that Vidak — who ran a tough 2010 congressional campaign against incumbent Jim Costa — would have a name identification edge. Perez is just four months into her first elected political office — Kern County supervisor.

It also stands to reason that Perez would close the gap. Perez’s polling found her down just four percentage points — 45% to 41%. She has a ton of money to get voters to the polls and increase her name identification in Fresno and other parts of the district were she isn’t very well known.

The key part of Perez’s claim to be the “favorite” is that she’s at 49% and Vidak 38% “after positive info” is shared.

This could mean anything, but it almost certainly means voters were asked who they supported again after all kinds of nice things were said about Perez — and, probably, some less-than-flattering things about Vidak.

What’s it all mean? Probably not much.

In a special election like this, when no other races are on the ballot and voters are barely paying attention, it all comes down to which side does a better job of getting its respective backers to actually cast ballots.

To that end, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff will be in Hanford Saturday to rally the troops to get voters to the polls. Huff will be joined by fellow Republican Senator Mimi Walters of Lake Forest.

Voting starts in 16th State Senate District battle to replace Rubio

Let the 16th State Senate District voting begin!

Monday was the first day voters living in the district could cast ballots for the May 21 special election to fill the seat of Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who unexpectedly resigned in February to take a job with the Chevron Corp.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said her office mailed out absentee ballots on Monday to 16th District voters who live in the county. Clerks in Tulare, Kern and Kings did the same.

But starting Monday at 8:30 a.m., Orth’s office was also open to anybody registered to vote in the district who couldn’t wait a moment longer to cast their ballot. And, Orth said, a few did just that.

There are five candidates seeking the seat: Peace and Freedom Party candidate Mohammad Arif of Bakersfield, Fresno Democrat Paulina Miranda, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, Riverdale Democrat Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Hanford Republican Andy Vidak.

If none of the candidates gets 50% of the votes, plus one, in the May 21 election, the top two vote-getters will face off in a July 23 runoff.

The district favors a Democrat, but Republicans say they like their chances because special elections typically have low turnouts, which often favors the GOP.

Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the district was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.

But that support is not spread even across the district.

For instance, in Fresno County Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 30,000 registered voters.

But in Kings County, Republicans outnumber Democrats, though only by a few thousand. In Tulare County, Democrats outnumber Republicans, but not by much. Kern County is another Democratic stronghold.

Still, it is clear that any winning strategy must center on Fresno County. Though it is at the district’s northern end, Fresno County has, at slightly more than 48%, the largest number of voters in the district.

Political Data has also collected some other interesting information.
For instance, almost 60% of registered voters have an average income below $50,000, and less than 1% are above $100,000.

The City of Fresno has, by far, the most voters — 25.9% of the district’s total. Next is unincorporated Kern County at 8.5% and Bakersfield and Hanford, each with 7.8% of the voters.

Democrats look to Bakersfield school trustee for Valadao challenge

Local and national Democrats think a Bakersfield City School District member might make the perfect challenger for first-term congressman David Valadao, a Hanford Republican.

Andrae Gonzales is currently the board’s president pro tem. Democrats call him an “up-and-comer.” Even Bakersfield Republican political consultant Stan Harper calls him “viable” and “bright.”

Andrae Gonzales

The question is: Can he unseat Valadao in the 21st Congressional District?

Democrats are still unhappy that they failed to even put up a fight for the seat last November. They hold a 15-percentage-point registration advantage in the district over the rival Republicans, but Valadao thumped Fresno Democrat John Hernandez, 58% to 42%.

Despite the registration advantage for Democrats, it never looked good for them during last year’s campaign.

Hernandez never seemed to get off the ground. His campaign seemed unfocused and not nearly visible enough. It was also dogged by debt.

Democrats never wanted Hernandez in the first place. They preferred Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, but in the state’s new top two primary, Valadao and Hernandez finished one-two. Xiong was left on the sidelines.

Now, Hernandez says he’s running again. And Democrats once again want an alternative, said Matt Rogers, chairman of the Fresno County Young Democrats.

Rogers said he spoke with Gonzales on Thursday morning, and the 31-year-old is interested in a run against Valadao. And, Rogers said, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also reached out to Gonzales.

Gonzales was also mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Michael Rubio, who abruptly resigned from the state Senate in February. A May 21 special election is set to fill that seat.

John Hernandez

But Gonzales isn’t the only potential candidate. Democrats are also talking to former state Sen. Dean Florez, as well as his mother Fran, a Shafter council member.

Florez might even be preferable for a Valadao challenge, because he twice won election in a Senate district that matches up well with the 21st Congressional District’s current boundaries — which takes in parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties and all of Kings County.

But Rogers said nobody in Democratic Party circles thinks Dean Florez will run.
The bench isn’t very deep for Democrats, either. Another possibility was newly elected Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, but now she’s running to replace Rubio in the state Senate.

If Gonzales does run — or Dean or Fran Florez, for that matter — the next hurdle would be getting them sufficient funds to mount an effective campaign.
Rogers said Democrats want to hold on the 36th Congressional District, where Raul Ruiz upset incumbent Republican Mary Bono Mack last year. The GOP will likely target that Southern California seat next year.

There are other seats held by Democrats in the state that also must be held, Rogers said.

In the end, will there be enough cash to fund Valadao’s challenger? And, it seems, the party may also have to get that person past a primary that may include Hernandez.