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A Gravy Train of Opinions on High-Speed Rail

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The recent release of environmental documents by the California High-Speed Rail Authority became a whistle in the far distance. And like commuters standing together on a platform waiting for a late train, those who follow the saga of building 520 miles of track for a high-speed train system between San Francisco and Los Angeles craned their necks to look, then begin chattering about the train that doesn't yet exist.

As can be expected, there is no shortage of opinion about the $48 billion--and rising--estimates for high-speed rail infrastructure.

First in line is the Central Valley, where the first two legs of track will be laid at a cost between $10 billion and $13.9 billion, reports California Watch led by Fresno Bee's Tim Sheehan.

Sheehan breaks down the costs based on the EIR's look at increased infrastructure and route construction estimates that include $3 billion for 36 miles of elevated tracks over certain Central Valley cities to avoid street closures; $844 million so construction will not block road and rail right of ways; $685 million to protect tracks along floodplains; $142 million for two-mile realignment of Highway 99 Fresno; and around $430 million purchase right of way for displaced homes and businesses along the route.

While those estimates were incurred and revealed, Central Valley growers on land where the track is aligned to run through have other concerns.

Kole Upton's 14-acres of corn, wheat, almonds and pistachios, also serves as a habitat for birds during breeding season, reports the Merced Sun-Star.

The busy grower, along with other heritage activists made of Merced farmers, monitors EIRs closely to keep his owls, hawks, sparrows and ducks in a row, and to make sure the new tracks do not divert from Union Pacific Railroad-Highway 99 corridor. "If it's a good project and it's going to be built, then build it according to the rules that existed using existing corridors," he told the Merced Sun-Star's Ameera Butt, adding the last resort is a lawsuit if they are "ignored" in the final EIR.

Farmers have compared the building of high-speed rail to the days when highway 99 divided towns. "I don't like it," said Edgar DeJager, the Chowchilla businessman who told CBS 47 Fresno the project would make him lose around 200 acres of land, and he already lost to 50 acres to Caltrans for widening the freeway.

The mayor is helping the locals fight the project. In July, an ordinance was passed "to not allow the project to move forward in Chowchilla without a permit."

More will be heard during public comments that were first scheduled to end Sept. 28. This week the Authority extended the public comment period for the EIR drafts and statements for the two Valley routes--Merced to Fresno and Fresno to Bakersfield sections--until Oct. 13, 2011. "We hope this extended period will enable additional feedback from the public while ensuring that this important project stays on schedule," said the high-speed authority CEO Roelof van Ark in a statement.

More Chip Shots

Cow chippers are not alone in having enough concerns to prepare lawsuits. Their silicon chip brethren have also had protesters, and more are stacked up in response to the four tracks on a 40-foot viaduct will send speeding trains past their Palo Alto, reports Foster City Patch. "Thus began the Berlin Wall metaphor, which has likely done more than anything else to curb enthusiasm for fast rail on the peninsula."

Still, during an August 17 series of meetings in Fresno, Gov. Jerry Brown said the state should move forward, despite the criticism about the project's management and cost. While the nation is in a "period of massive retrenchment," Brown told the Fresno Bee, "I would like to be part of the group that gets America to think big again."

Regional negotiation aside, high-speed rail is making California the focal point for all big rail debates, writes Ezra Klein at the Washington Post. The economic and domestic policy columnist considers the project not quite dead, despite critics like National Review's Reihan Salam saying "This is a national embarrassment."

"Sacramento needs to pull the plug on this," wrote Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, who wonders if the cost of train fare can compete with airlines. "We have way better uses for this dough."

This has ruffled the feathers of those committed to high-speed rail, like the entertaining California High Speed Rail Blog. If not vilifying Central Valley NIMBYs, he takes on media, like Fresno Bee's Sheehan and his report.

"It may help get more eyeballs on a story" says Robert Cruickshank of the article written through a partnership with The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle and The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise.

Cruickshank is adamant about media making clear that cost of "doing nothing is not zero." "The cost of expanding freeways and airports to meet the travel demand HSR will meet is estimated at $100 billion. Compared to that, HSR is a bargain."

Cruickshank does encourage Valley residents to attend workshops and examine options, "rather than simply rely on what project opponents and NIMBYs have to say about it."

Then there is commentor Matt Korner, who has a diplomatic way of reasoning why Californians should support high-speed rail, beyond improving air quality and lessening highway congestion. "How could anyone living in Fresno not be in favor of having a high-speed rail station in his or her city? So many of these cities were built around rail originally, but were marginalized as automobiles and airplanes became dominant."

"Often times, these places almost lost their reasons for existing when the United States stopped investing in its rail system and failed to keep pace with the rest of the world."

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