Down at the Whiners' and Beggars' Hall the other night, the boys on the Merced City Council tuned up and gave a highly harmonious howl and stamped their feet in a veritable clog dance of indignation.
What had happened was that after about a decade of brown nosing any and all representatives dispatched to them from the California High Speed Rail Authority so that the city would be sure to get one of the highly prized high speed rail stations smack dab in the middle of downtown Merced, the authority appears to have decided against it.
The problem our leaders have is that they gave away all the public had to give to get UC Merced. The campus was supposed to be a fool-proof, no-brainer magnet for more and more and more public funds for the personal enrichment of the favored few. The notion that that may not be true is making them hysterical.
Local environmental groups, as seen in the lower report, have been familiar with the arbitrary ways of the rail authority for some time. Yet we wonder how the decision was made to bypass Merced.
We know it wasn't made on environmental grounds. We also know it wasn't made as the result of political pressure because the Whiners and Beggars have allies as well as opponents in both parties and both houses of the state Legislature and in the Valley congressional delegation.
However, the only part of the project being built at the moment involves a company in which Richard Blum, husband of US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has a sizeable interest. Blum, who was chair of the UC Board of Regents during the final stages of planning and construction of the first phase of UC Merced, may have decided that the little people have received their gentle sufficiency from the public trough. Now it is Fresno's turn to receive the benefits of a major boondoggle and they now have the torn up street crossings to prove it. And they can look forward proudly to a realignment of 99 Highway.
The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands results in a concentration of political power in fewer and fewer hands. This situation, of course, causes enormous consternation in the lower political orders, who are supposed docilely to swallow each new generation of High Speed Rail Authority malarkey and sell it to the public.
The decision may have been made by the Federal Railroad Administration, controlled by the two largest railroads in the land, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, both of which pass through central Merced. It certainly wasn't made without consultation with the FRA, now subject to control by a Republican congress against high speed rail solely because President Obama likes it.
Republican members of the Valley congressional delegation, from Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, oppose it as a boondoggle and an anti-agribusiness project. And they have allies in the state Legislature.
We also have to consider possible resentment against Mayor Stan Thurston by the high speed rail authority. Thurston knows more about public passenger rail service in the San Joaquin Valley than the other six council members combined, having been involved with planning and policy on the issue since the final years of the last century. Thurston is critical. At the council meeting on March 21, for example, he was the only council member who spoke up against the project, noting that it would destroy downtown Merced, "the heart of the city." The high speed rail authority does not like any criticism of its decisions, reached in high-handed secrecy.
In fact, it has been the behavior of the authority itself that has caused most of its own problems, and that may be the result of its initially having been established with too much power, too much money, and not enough accountability for its public funds.
The two main contenders to follow Thurston after he's termed out are council members Josh Pedrozo and Mike Murphy. Pedrozo is a tool of the coyotes that control the local Democrats; Murphy is the public mouthpiece for local Republican, rightwing business hypocrites. These types believe they stand to gain by the project.
Pedrozo, on the edge of hysteria in the best of times, threw a temper tantrum, denouncing the authority for not being fair to those "who have played nice in the sandbox.
Councilman Murphy, chin quivering with moral indignation, denounced the authority's action, insinuating that it was "illegal." The hypocrisy of these free market evangelists always reaches its most hysterical pitch when business is denied another infusion of public funds.
And so the pathetic circus rolls on, reminding us that there are two kinds of inertia, the inertia of rest and the inertia of motion. Inert Merced leadership rolls along like the zombie banks it aided and abetted at every step in the housing boom and bust. It rolls along with the inert floundering of UC Merced. It looks like a strange paradox--static motion, which is what ought to be expected in a region dominated totally by real estate values.
Merced council irked by changes to plan for high-speed rail
Merced’s stop would be complete in 2029 instead of 2022
Local representatives were not allowed in on the process
Authority stresses that Merced is still in first phase
The members of Merced City Council used words like “disheartening,” “discouraging” and “maddening” to express their frustration with state high-speed rail decision-makers on Monday.
Several members of the council said they were angered over the latest plans, which put off Merced’s stop until 2029. The newest plans are to first build a 250-mile segment of the rail that would run from north of Bakersfield to San Jose, with the westward bend near Chowchilla. It would begin operating in 2025, three years later than the previous plan that called for trains to run from Merced to the San Fernando Valley by 2022.
Members of the council said they were dismayed that they were not allowed in on the decision making or notified by the regional representatives about pending changes to the rail plans. “Either we got a representative that’s not in the loop or something else is going on,” Councilman Mike Murphy said. “It’s maddening.”
The council heard Monday from Diana Gomez, Central Valley regional director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and Melissa DuMond, the Authority’s director of planning and integration. Gomez stressed that Merced remains in the first phase of the plans.
“The authority’s commitment to work and invest in the city of Merced will continue as we advance stationary planning and local connectivity,” Gomez said in a statement Wednesday. “The Merced station plays a key part in completing the first phase of the high-speed rail program and we intend to carry on coordination with local partners in delivering immediate mobility, and economic and community benefits for Merced and the rest of California.”
The authority’s representatives were in town to talk about the changes set forth in the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s Draft 2016 Business Plan. Gomez told the council she knew of the new plans a week or two before they were made public on Feb. 16.
She also appeared to further close the door on any chance of locating a heavy maintenance facility at Castle Commerce Center, a facility estimated to generate 1,500 jobs. Locations in Kern and Fresno counties are being eyed for it.
Gomez said the connection to bring the high-speed train from the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near 16th Street to the BNSF Railway tracks near 25th Street on their way to Castle would be unmanageable.
Backers said the new plan also lets the state build an operating portion of the line without relying on additional money that might never come. Supporters have said they hope construction will generate momentum and private investment to pay for the rest of the project south to the Los Angeles area.
Councilman Josh Pedrozo said he was frustrated that Merced’s stop could be pushed to 2029 without local representatives being allowed to give input.
“The problem was even when the business plan was being worked on, nobody in Merced or Merced County was notified of the changes,” he said. “I find it really hard to believe that there’s no discussion that takes part that can’t come to the communities, for lack of a better term, who have played nice in the sandbox to get this done.”
Major construction on the first 29-mile section began last summer on a viaduct over the Fresno River and Highway 145 east of Madera. In downtown Fresno, the old Tuolumne Street bridge over the Union Pacific railroad tracks was demolished in January and February.
High-Speed Authority officials said other facilities, like a dispatch center, training facility and smaller maintenance hub, are planned and Merced could apply for them.
Councilman Tony Dossetti said the changes have been “disheartening” because the majority of the council has strongly supported high-speed rail in town.
“I feel like we’ve been punched in the face by HSR,” he said.
The council asked City Manager Steve Carrigan to write a letter encompassing their dismay of the changes. The plan is in a comment phase and is set to go to the state Legislature on May 1.
Deja vu at the Sam Pipes Room, Merced City Hall
Badlands Journal editorial board
The California High Speed Rail Authority held a technical advisory council meeting on Monday, Dec. 7, at a public meeting hall called the Sam Pipes Room, in the Merced City Hall. Two members of the Merced public, representing the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center and Protect Our Water (POW), wished to attend.
The regional director of the San Joaquin Valley unit of the rail authority had told the members of the public that a meeting would take place on Monday at a different location. The members of the public wrote to the regional director twice last week inquiring if they would be permitted to attend the meeting and asked her by phone.
She replied that she had received the request and would talk to rail authority legal counsel. The members of the public requested that if they were not permitted to attend, that rail authority counsel provide written legal justification, considering that the authority was consulting with special interests like water districts, the farm bureau, insurance companies, etc.
Not hearing back from the regional director at the end of last week or Monday morning, the members of the public called the rail authority headquarters in Sacramento and were informed of the time and different location of the meeting and that there should be no problem with public attendance of the meeting.
Merced County will be cut into quarters by the proposed high-speed rail routes, one running north and south, the other running east and west through Pacheco Pass.
In return for its "crossroads" status, at the moment Merced had been promised one of the highly prized stations on the route. The additional carrot of a maintenance yard, possibly at the former Castle Air Force Base, has been offered to the ancient nags that pass for political leaders in our county in return for their support of cutting up the county with high-speed rail tracks crossing the native grasslands, wetlands and prime farmland on one or both sides of the county, depending on the routes chosen by the rail authority directors.
The members of the public entered the meeting. They estimated about 75 people were there, seated in a large horseshoe arrangement of tables and against the walls. Many of the people were as familiar to them as the meeting room, because they had met with many of the same local leaders in meetings ranging over the last decade.
Rail Authority staff approached the two members of the public with grinning anxiety. The first staffer to arrive asked them to sign in. As the public began to sign in.
The regional director arrived, demanding to know who had invited them. They told her that they had been told by the rail authority headquarters in Sacramento where and when the meeting was held.
The regional director demanded to know who -- by name -- in Sacramento had invited them to this meeting. The members of the public did not give her a name.
The director informed the members of the public that the reason she had not replied to them was because of state furloughs.
She was followed by the senior San Joaquin Valley staffer for the rail authority who informed the members of the public that they were definitely not invited and could not attend the meeting and were, in fact, to leave immediately.
Meanwhile, the members of the public, looking over the shoulders of the Rail Authority staffers, observed the local Merced leaders and public officials, whose expressions ranged from a certain political anxiety to giggles to sneers.
The members of the public, in the process of being ejected from a public meeting room in the City Hall of the town in which they live, were reminded of other meetings with many of the same same sorry lot of local leaders, the same people responsible for Merced, after a few months only in the top five national foreclosure-rate rankings, regaining the lead again as we go into the holiday season with official unemployment around 20 percent and real unemployment at least 10 points higher.
One legislative aide in the room appeared to giggle as the members of the public were ejected.
They thought about the meetings they had attended with city officials at the Sam Pipes Room concerning a plan in 1999 to drive turkey vultures out of the eucalyptus trees on M Street by harassing them with cherry bombs. They were reminded of the UC Merced Long-Range Deveolopment Plan meetings there, in which plans to make plans were unveiled and lies were told by all the right people. They recalled the meetings of the Community Plan Advisory Committee also held at the Sam Pipes Room in which the plan to build a new town adjoining the new UC campus north of town were unveiled and discussed.
Although the impression was brief, given the agitation of the staffers intent on ejecting them from their town's public-meeting hall, the members of the public left the meeting with the idea that they had caught the decrepit, failed leadership of their city and county attempting to sell out the public again. The leader wearing the widest grin watching them get ejected was Kole Upton, a pseudo-Joe Public who has made a career out of betraying the interests whose hats he has worn.
While the members of the public were talking on the phone with rail authority headquarters in Sacramento, they observed Mike Lynch, the region's preeminent political fixer, conferring with the staffers concerning the incident.
Los Angeles Times
State Senate committee chairman plans oversight hearings on California's bullet train
A cost estimate for building an initial operating segment of California’s bullet train showed it had jumped from $31 billion to $40 billion.
The Democratic chairman of the state Senate transportation committee said he plans to hold oversight hearings on the bullet train to examine its management performance, construction schedules and cost estimates.
The hearings, chaired by Sen. James Beall Jr. of San Jose, would provide the first significant legislative oversight of the project in four years, during which it has fallen far behind schedule and concerns have mounted over its costs and other uncertainties.
Beall said his objective is to find a way to accelerate the construction schedule to reduce costs. The lawmaker said the hearings will be called soon after the state rail authority issues its 2016 business plan, which is expected in coming weeks.
"The oversight will be much more extensive," said Beall, who has been involved in state transportation issues for decades. "Don't doubt that we will instill some fiscal oversight of the high-speed rail."
The business plan will lay out the state's latest vision for how it will fund, build and eventually operate the 220-mph trains. It will be crucial to answering concerns that have grown in the last two years as expected construction in the Central Valley fell well short of plans owing to the state's failure to obtain adequate parcels of land. At the same time, the state has not yet attracted private investors as it had hoped.
The delays and funding shortfalls pose major obstacles to its existing plan, adopted in 2014, to complete an initial operating segment from Burbank to Merced by 2022. That link will require boring about 36 miles of tunnels through geologically complex mountains, building as many as six stations, erecting new high-voltage electrical lines and constructing a heavy maintenance facility.
The initial operating segment is the proposed foundation block that would enable the state to attract private investors and complete the 500-mile system.
The hearings will mark a sharp increase in the political oversight in Sacramento. Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats have not scrutinized the project despite mounting questions from construction and rail experts and Republicans in Sacramento and Washington.
A joint state legislative committee last week rejected a proposal to authorize an audit by the California state auditor, who has not examined the project for four years. The last audit raised warnings about a wide range of potential risks and recommended the project needed additional oversight.
A new audit was requested by Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford), who says the Legislature's refusal has been the direct result of enormous pressure on Democrats from Brown and the party's leadership, afraid that negative findings would jeopardize the project.
"It is the biggest program in the United States, and the refusal to have an audit is ridiculous," Vidak said. "We wanted this audit to show the waste and abuse of this program. The inflated costs are outrageous."
Spokesmen for Brown did not respond directly to Vidak's assertion, but said in an email, "We remain strongly committed to this project...and support the Authority's effort to modernize transportation, and do so transparently and with continued public input."
Jeff Morales, chief executive of the rail authority, said last week in a letter to Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), chairman of the audit committee, that the project is already subject to strong oversight. The committee denied the audit request on a straight party line vote. Gipson declined a request to be interviewed.
Despite the rejection of an independent audit, lawmakers are taking steps to increase their own attention to the project.
In addition to Beall's hearing, an Assembly budget subcommittee on transportation will hold a hearing next week, an apparent follow-up to a pledge by Speaker Toni Atkins to hold a hearing in response to an unpublished cost estimate that showed the cost of building an initial operating segment had jumped from $31 billion to $40 billion.
The Times disclosed the cost estimate in October, noting that it was the product of two years of study by a team of engineers from the state's principal contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The estimate was not adopted in the 2014 business plan, however. Instead, the state stuck with a lower cost estimate from 2012. California High Speed Rail Authority officials have dismissed the cost estimate as only a "draft."
The Assembly hearing is scheduled to include testimony by Morales and rail authority Chairman Dan Richard.
Also testifying will be Louis Thompson, chairman of a peer review panel mandated under the 2008 bullet train bond act. Thompson has recommended that the Legislature "consider the creation of a special unit in the Legislative Analysts Office or elsewhere with the resources and continuity to keep an eye on the project continuously."
He said he would reiterate that recommendation next week.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), a member of the transportation budget subcommittee, said he intends to question whether the entire project can be completed for the advertised $68 billion. So far, the Democratic leadership has blocked any serious examination of the project's challenges, he said.
"It has been a white wash and a rubber-stamp look," Patterson said. "I want to drill down on the limits of the state's authority. It needs to be put through a significant wringer."
In Washington, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said he plans to convene hearings this year, though a date has not been set. After The Times disclosed the Parsons Brinckerhoff cost estimate, a dozen members of Congress wrote a letter to the company demanding that it release the document.
"We have long warned that the authority is not being honest with the public about the true costs of constructing high speed rail in California," Denham and the other Republicans said. "It is alarming that the authority's lead consultant would raise warnings with the authority that would subsequently be hidden from the public."
California voters in 2008 approved initial bond funding for the high speed system. At the time, the costs were estimated at $33 billion, less than half the current estimate. Since then, as costs rose the project was scaled back at both ends, with planners sharply reducing train speeds from Anaheim to Los Angeles in the south and San Jose to San Francisco in the north.
Public opinion polls over the last three years have found that support has flagged as costs have risen.
A new poll by Stanford University's Hoover Institution, released last week, found that 53% of voters want the opportunity to stop the bullet train and redirect funds to water projects.
Despite the public concern, Brown has held his ranks together to support the biggest program of his administration. But some divisions have appeared among Democrats in recent months.
Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) is now opposed to the project, said Charles Dalldorf, Roth's chief of staff.
"There is no direct benefit to his district," Dalldorf said. "He hears about it almost every time he makes an appearance in the district."
Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, responding to an outpouring of anger over the train's possible route through her low-income minority community in the San Fernando Valley, said last month that she was no longer supporting the project.
Patterson said he suspects that Democratic members have lost faith in the project and are just biding time until Brown leaves office in 2018, a view that some legislative staffers say may accurately represent the views of some members.