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.

Vidak rails against high-speed train project

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, is taking his anti-high-speed rail show on the road, launchng what he calls his “Whistle-Stop-the-High-Speed Rail” tour.

In a statement Friday, Vidak cited a recent visit to PFFJ LLC, a large hog farm operated by a subsidiary of Hormel Foods in Tulare County southeast of Corcoran. Vidak said the 420-acre farm supplies about 150,000 pigs a year to a Farmer John processing plant in Los Angeles, and includes a feed mill that produces hog and chicken feed.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has yet to finalize a route for its Fresno-Bakersfield section that would also cross Kings and Tulare counties, but Vidak’s statement said the rail route “runs right through the farm” and would displace not only the farm, but the feed mill.

“The result of wiping out this business is 43 full-time, year-round employees will lose their jobs and benefits,” Vidak’s statement said.

(View PFFJ hog farm and feed plant in a larger map)

Vidak said he plans to visit other local businesses “being run over by the HSR Authority.”

“We’ve got sky-high unemployment in our Central Valley,” he added. “Wiping out jobs to build a train to nowhere just defies common sense.”

It’s a sentiment that’s going to be popular in much of Vidak’s state senate district, where discontent and distrust of the rail authority run high, particularly in his own backyard in Kings County and the cities of Hanford and Corcoran.

Under the law, the rail authority is obligated to compensate businesses that are displaced by the project, including paying for relocating. But the agency has said it cannot begin negotiating with businesses to acquire property, or start eminent domain proceedings, until a final environmental impact report is certified and an actual route determined — neither of which has happened for the Fresno-Bakersfield section of the project.

Senate repels Vidak effort to put high-speed rail on ’14 ballot

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.

In a move that stunned, well, practically nobody, the Democrat-controlled state Senate voted down a set of amendments proposed by Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, intended to freeze money and halt work on California’s high-speed rail project and put the controversial effort in front of the state’s voters once again.

Vidak’s amendments to a bill by Assembly Member Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, would have put high-speed rail on the November 2014 ballot. But the amendments shot down Wednesday on a straight party-line vote, with 11 Republicans voting to take up the amendments and 24 Democrats voting to reject the amendments.

Frazier’s bill deals with allocating duties that used to be part of the now-defunct Business, Transportation and Housing Agency to the state’s new Transportation Agency.

Even Vidak’s staff had acknowledged that the amendments were a long shot, but after the vote the senator kept swinging at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency tasked with developing the rail system.

“I was simply asking to let Californians re-vote on high-speed rail,” Vidak said. “Much has changed since Californians voted on this issue in 2008, and the people deserve the right to vote on whether billions of dollars of taxpayer money should be spent on” — wait for it — “this boondoggle.”

Voters approved Prop. 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure, in November 2008. But since then, the estimated cost to build the system to link the Bay Area and Los Angeles by way of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley has roller-coastered from about $45 billion to as much as $98 billion in 2011 and, since early 2012, about $68 billion.

Nothing simple about property buys for high-speed rail route

A conceptual view of a high-speed train running through the Valley.

Monday’s story about efforts by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to acquire property, and the resulting displacement of businesses along the route in the Fresno and Madera areas such as Angelo’s Drive In or Keith’s Automotive, struck a chord among readers who interrupted their Labor Day weekend to leave me phone messages and send a few emails.

It seems to underscore the complexity of the process involved in securing land for public works projects, including right of way for big ones like the controversial high-speed train project. There are two big factors at the heart of the issue:

  • People who own businesses, farms and homes in the path of the railroad route have not only invested their money, but their effort and their sweat, into something that stands to be swept away, if and when the project is built; and
  • They’re feeling a little pushed around by the process, and in some cases insulted by offers that don’t reflect what they believe their property and business is worth — that is, they don’t think it is what the lawyers call “just compensation.”

No wonder property owners, homeowners and affected businesses can find themselves confused and angry. But here’s some info that we weren’t able to work into Monday’s story.

The story reported that the rail authority has, as of last week, made more than 120 formal written offers to owners of land along the proposed railroad route in Fresno and Madera counties. Those written offers are based on appraisals done by consultants to the rail agency. You can see a copy of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s parcel-by-parcel right of way plan here (warning: it’s a large file!). The right of way plan has been incorporated into the agency’s contract with Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, the contracting consortium hired to design and build the first 29-mile section of the system in Fresno and Madera. You can find an interactive, clickable map of parcels identified by the rail authority as those likely to be needed earliest (by the end of September) here.

When the authority makes a written offer to a property owner, it triggers a complex process in which “most property owners probably are not aware of what the law provides in terms of compensation for an impacted business owner,” said Anthony Leones, an eminent-domain attorney for Miller Star Regalia, a Bay Area law firm that prepared a newsletter about high-speed rail and land issues.

“What a business owner needs to do when they get an offer is, first of all, understand that the offer may not be inclusive of all their potential damages,” Leones said. “A business can be damaged in a lot of ways, even if they’re only taking a portion of the property. … For businesses, the situation is a lot more complex and they should understand that the initial offer is not a final offer, and they don’t have to accept it.”

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Patterson, Bigelow seek audit of high-speed rail land acquisition

A pair of freshman GOP lawmakers from the Valley want the Legislature to examine how the California High-Speed Rail Authority is going about getting the property it needs for right of way.

Jim Patterson

Frank Bigelow

Assembly Members Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, submitted their request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. The pair want to know what policies or safeguards are in place to ensure that property owners receive fair offers for their land, and whether there is a process for landowners to appeal appraisal values before eminent domain or condemnation takes place.

Like many other Republican legislators, Patterson and Bigelow have been outspoken critics of the rail agency and its plans in the San Joaquin Valley. As a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Bigelow was among a board majority that voted to sue the rail authority last year over environmental approval of  the Merced-Fresno section. The authority hopes to begin construction on the first 30-mile stretch of the planned statewide rail system, from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno, later this summer. But the authority can’t build on land if it doesn’t own the property.

“We cannot allow the authority to continue a reckless, headlong pursuit of high-speed rail that results in taking as much property as they can for the least amount of compensation,” Patterson said in a joint statement he issued Tuesday with Bigelow. “Private property owners nee to be treated fairly and adequately compensated for the loss of their land and business.”

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There’s no fast-track likely for Valley high-speed rail hiring

The prospect of California’s high-speed train project, and construction that could start as soon as next summer in the central San Joaquin Valley, seems to shine like a light at the end of the tunnel for many unemployed workers.

There’s been so much written about unemployment here in the Valley: the monthly unemployment figures from the state Employment Development Department, occasional stories about large-scale layoffs by companies in the Valley. It all gets a little overwhelming sometimes. But that’s nothing compared to the desperation of people who want a job but cannot find one.

Since Thursday, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority adopted a policy aimed at promoting the hiring of disadvantaged workers by contractors, my phone line and email have been lit up by wishful job-seekers wanting to know when, where and how they can apply for work on the massive infrastructure project.

I can hear the hope in their voices as they talk about seeing the story in the paper or on The Bee’s website, only to hear them go crestfallen when I have to tell them that no major hiring is likely to happen anytime soon.

What happened last week was a policy decision by the state rail authority, not a hiring decision by contractors. There are five teams of contractors who have until mid-January to submit their bids for the first stage of construction from Madera through Fresno. The policy lets those companies know what the state’s expectations are for hiring people from economically disadvantaged communities, or workers who themselves are disadvantaged by virtue of being in one of the following categories:

  • Homeless
  • Veteran
  • Single parent who has custody of a child
  • On public assistance
  • Lacking a high school diploma
  • Having a criminal record
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Apprentice with fewer than 15% of the necessary hours to graduate from a trade program

It’s unlikely that any of the would-be contractors will be doing any hiring until they know they’ve got the job. And the rail authority does not expect to award the major contract until next summer.

That’s not much comfort to the guy who wrote that he recently lost his job, or to the fellow who told me on the phone that he’s been out of work since 2009.

Still to come: The rail authority and its would-be contractors will have to come to grips with agreements that the companies already have with labor unions to hire union workers for the project. It’s yet to be seen to what extent that could be a problem for non-union businesses hoping to land work as subcontractors on the rail line, or how much of a potential obstacle it may be for workers here in the Valley.