SAN FRANCISCO
08/05/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

California High Speed Rail: 'Depolorable' Comments From Bullet Train Official Enrage Farmers

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Lance Williams

At a Sacramento hearing on high-speed rail, the director of a local farm bureau complained that the California bullet train was being routed through prime agricultural land in the Central Valley without any input from farmers.

The official in charge of the $45 billion project was dismissive in his reply.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Curt Pringle, chairman of the state High-Speed Rail Authority, told Kings County Farm Bureau executive Diana Peck at that hearing in May.

If Peck wanted to speak on behalf of elected officials from her area, she should “bring a note” showing they approved her remarks, Pringle also said.

Pringle, a former Assembly speaker, later apologized and still later resigned from the bullet train board.

But to this day, valley rail opponents are unforgiving.

They say Pringle’s comments sum up everything that is wrong with the rail authority’s approach to planning the route for the Fresno-Bakersfield leg of the bullet train. Construction is supposed to begin next year.

The issue of Pringle’s alleged disrespect came up again this week, when the County of Kings Board of Supervisors sent a tough 21-page letter to the Federal Railroad Administration. The supervisors accused the state rail authority of ignoring local concerns – and violating environmental laws – in plotting the bullet train’s route.

Attached to the letter, as evidence of the “deplorable” treatment locals were receiving, was a partial transcript of Pringle’s comments to Peck.

“Our position has not been meaningfully considered in this process,” the supervisors wrote to rail Administrator Joseph Szabo. “This top-down, agenda-driven type of land use planning will not stand in Kings County.”

The underlying issue is the rail authority’s decision to veer away from the Highway 99 corridor in Kings County and instead route the bullet train through dairies and orchards near Hanford en route to Bakersfield. The project will wreck a lot of farms, the supervisors say. Meanwhile, “agriculture is a way of life for Kings County and its economy depends on it,” they wrote.

In their letter, the supervisors complained that the rail authority chose the route before it completed the environmental studies on the project. They threatened a lawsuit over the issue.

“The Authority has violated numerous federal and state laws, as well as presidential executive orders,” they wrote. “Now it is even questionable if they can carry out this project in an economically feasible, self-sustaining manner.

“Will the ‘largest infrastructure project in the nation’ end up becoming the greatest misuse of our natural and economic resources?”

The rail authority has said the chosen Kings County route is the most efficient and best. There would be just as much opposition if the Highway 99 route were selected instead, rail officials say.

Meanwhile, the big spending cuts built into the recent federal debt ceiling deal have fueled speculation that California's bullet train will not get any more federal money. It’s already obtained $3.6 billion in federal aid, but will need billions more to build the statewide system.

This week, a Moody’s analyst called the California bullet train “low-hanging fruit” for lawmakers seeking budget savings, especially given the opposition to the project in the valley, the Bay Area News Group reported. The project could "come under the ax partially or completely,” the analyst said.

In remarks about the federal debt limit crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown sounded like he’s a bullet train booster, if only somebody would pay for the project.

"I do think the federal government has to balance its books, and it's got to make tough decisions, and I do agree you've got to have revenue as well as cuts," he told BANG reporters. "But I do think they should be deferring the cuts by putting them into law and investing in jobs, whether in Civilian Conservation Corps or high-speed rail or bridges.

"We need a bold Rooseveltian thrust forward, and Republicans just don't believe it. They believe government is evil and to feed the beast is bad. If that's true, then a modern society like America is in trouble."

Lance Williams is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.