Tim Sheehan, McClatchy News Service

Members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority were alternately scolded and encouraged — and even threatened with arrest — for more than three hours Tuesday in a hearing on plans for the Fresno-Bakersfield section of its proposed bullet-train network.

Tuesday was the first part of a two-day meeting for the rail board to consider certifying environmental reports and adopting a route for the 114-mile segment through the southern San Joaquin Valley. A certification vote and route approval are expected Wednesday, after the authority board hears its staff respond to comments presented Tuesday. The meeting resumes at 10 a.m. at Fresno City Hall.

Of more than four dozen speakers Tuesday, about 30 were either critical of the environmental report that has been three years in preparation, or of the entire passenger rail project itself.

A key complaint of many was the short time that the public had to sift through the 20,000-page environmental impact report before the hearing. The report — intended to detail the anticipated effects on homes, businesses, farms, communities and wildlife habitat from building and operating the high-speed train line in the Valley — was published less than three weeks ago.

“The authority said there were 4,800 pages of comment letters submitted by October 2012, and your staff took 545 days to review them and develop responses,” said Hanford farmer and retired attorney Mike LaSalle, Tuesday’s final speaker. “We didn’t see those responses until about 17 days ago.”

LaSalle told the board members that he submitted 11 more pages rebutting the authority’s responses to comments. “I don’t think you can make an informed decision without reading these,” he added. “I suggest you have the courage to table a decision on this for at least another month. Give yourself a chance to read them. … Your staff took 545 days to review this. You can take another 30 days.”

Several other speakers said the environmental report failed to analyze how earthmoving during construction of the railbed through the Valley may not only increase air pollution from dust particles, but might increase the risk of exposure to Valley fever, a respiratory infection caused by a fungus that spreads when soil is disturbed and spores scattered.

Alan Scott of Hanford, a member of the grassroots rail opposition group Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, ridiculed the authority’s plan to pony up millions of dollars to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to pay for air pollution reductions elsewhere in the region.

“When I drive down the road and kick up dust, $35 million is not going to do a damn thing for the particulates,” Scott said. “You’re going to have trucks running all over the roads (during construction). You’re telling me that money mitigates pollution?”

Anita Soliz of Bakersfield said the environmental analysis does not consider the economic impacts of Valley fever on families like hers. She said her son contracted Valley fever and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills for his medical care, in addition to more than $9,000 a month in prescriptions.

But other speakers urged the board to approve the report and the route, which runs from downtown Fresno to the northern edge of Bakersfield and sweeps diagonally across farmland in Kings County. It includes a bypass that runs east around Hanford, bypasses around the towns of Corcoran and Allensworth, and a station to be built at Hanford’s eastern edge when passenger traffic warrants it.

“For more than 10 years, Visalia has supported a train station in our region,” Visalia mayor Steve Nelson said as he presented a letter expressing the Visalia City Council’s unanimous support. “Placing a future station on the east side of Hanford will serve the greatest number of residents in the Tulare-Kings region … and will increase access to opportunities elsewhere in the state.”

Hanford farmer Brad Johns said approving the alignment through Kings County “is the right thing. It will create jobs, help air pollution and take cars off the road,” he said. “This is building something for the future for our kids.”

In one of the most unusual exchanges of the evening, Fresno resident David Wells presented photos he took of decayed anchor bolts from Chicago’s light rail system. “If they can’t maintain rail better than that, then you have no business trying to use the people’s money in California for that kind of system to wind up that way,” he said.

“If it doesn’t stop, I’m going to have a citizen’s arrest of all you people … on criminal charges of mismanagement of government funds,” Wells added. “You either stop this nonsense and do it right … or face a citizen’s arrest.”

©2014 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)
Photo from Shutterstock