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California High Speed Rail Public Hearing Draws Critics

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California HSR Authority

By Brooke Donald, Associated Press

PALO ALTO, Calif. (AP) -- Supporters and opponents of an ambitious, multibillion dollar plan to build a high-speed rail line in California got their first chance Tuesday to bring their opinions to lawmakers who held a public hearing that at times got testy as environmental, economic and industrial concerns collided.

The bullet train under consideration would link San Francisco and Anaheim, and include the Central Valley.

A new draft plan that lawmakers will vote on next year was released Nov. 1. Assemblyman Rich Gordon, who heads the subcommittee that oversees transportation agencies, led the hearing at Palo Alto City Hall.

Three panels kicked off the four-hour hearing. Presenters included top officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, representatives of citizen groups, a member of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office and officials from business and labor groups. Residents and others advocates stepped to the microphone later.

Gordon, D-Menlo Park, said the goal was to express concerns or support and learn how the plan was drafted.

Opponents called the project a boondoggle, too expensive and a jobs killer, and questioned ridership and revenue projections.

They also said it wasn't the project originally approved by voters several years ago and urged lawmakers to allow residents to weigh in again at the ballot box.

Opponents also said the dependence on federal dollars to help build the rail is a flawed strategy with upcoming elections that could change the political landscape in Washington.

Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, questioned the rail authority on this point, drawing cheers from the audience.

"This is a very risky plan," Elizabeth Alexis of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design added later. "I urge you, I urge you — figure out a way to get another year on this because right now it's not something that works."

Some speakers' remarks drew various laughs, applause, signs of disapproval and finger-waving before Gordon urged respect for differing opinions.

An audience member twice shouted "boo," but the hearing went on without major interruption.

The packed house and enthusiasm from the crowd showed the concern many people share about the project, estimated now to have a cost of $98.5 billion in inflation-adjusted funding over a 20-year construction period.

While acknowledging the giant price tag, supporters, however, urged lawmakers to press ahead. They argued the cost of maintaining and improving other infrastructure is more than the rail project, which opponents dispute, and said it will put hundreds of thousands of people to work, especially in the hard hit construction industry.

"We are about to embark on the largest public works project in the U.S.," said Cesar Diaz, legislative director of State Building and Construction Trades. "It couldn't have come at a better time."

Cement masons, electricians, laborers and others would be put back to work, he argued. A rail line would create demand for new restaurants, stores and other businesses at stations.

"The naysayers today are wrong," he said to snickers from the audience. "Most of all we need jobs."

Several residents took their turn at the microphone but public comment was mostly dominated by activists.

Leonardo Hochberg, a web engineer from Palo Alto, stood in support of the project and warned lawmakers if they did not act they were voting against the future.

"If you do not lead today, we will have the same transportation problems and worse in 20 or 30 years," he said. "And that's going to affect me and my son."

Still others, however, said a rail project with routes near their Central Valley farms would harm their businesses and their livelihoods.

The public has 60 days to comment on the project. Lawmakers will not vote on whether to approve selling high-speed rail bonds until after they return in January.

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