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In this photo taken Tuesday, July 16, 2013, an Amtrak conductor checks the time as the passenger train takes on passengers in Hanford, Calif. The state's plan to build the first high-speed rail system in the nation is intended to alleviate gridlock, connect the Central Valley to better jobs, and ease pollution, but many residents oppose the $68 billion project.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Work begins on California bullet train, locals angry
First Published Oct 20 2013 10:06 am • Last Updated Oct 20 2013 04:37 pm

Fresno, Calif. • Trucks loaded with tomatoes, milk and almonds clog the two main highways that bisect California’s farm heartland, carrying goods to millions along the Pacific Coast and beyond. This dusty stretch of land is the starting point for one of the most expensive U.S. public infrastructure projects: a $68 billion high-speed rail system that would span the state, linking the people of America’s salad bowl to more jobs, opportunity and buyers.

Five years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the idea of bringing a bullet train to themost populous U.S. state. It would be America’s first high-speed rail system, sold to the public as a way to improve access to good-paying jobs, cut pollution from smog-filled roadways and reduce time wasted sitting in traffic while providing an alternative to high fuel prices.

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Now, engineering work has finally begun on the first 30-mile (48-kilometer) segment of track here in Fresno, a city of a half-million people with soaring unemployment and a withering downtown core littered with abandoned factories and shuttered stores.

Rail is meant to help Fresno, with construction jobs now and improved access to economic opportunity once the project is finished. But the region that could benefit most from the project is also where opposition to it has grown most fierce.

"I just wish it would go away, this high-speed rail. I just wish it would go away," says Gary Lanfranco, whose restaurant in downtown Fresno is slated to be demolished to make way for rerouted traffic.

Such sentiments can be heard throughout the Central Valley, where roads are dotted with signs such as: "HERE COMES HIGH SPEED RAIL There goes the farm." Growers complain of misplaced priorities, and residents wonder if their tax money is being squandered.

Aaron Fukuda, a civil engineer whose house in the dairy town of Hanford lies directly in one of the possible train routes, says: "People are worn out, tired, frustrated."

Voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds to start construction on an 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) rail line to ferry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, compared with 6 hours by car now during good traffic. Since then, the housing market collapsed, multibillion-dollar budget deficits followed, and the price tag has fluctuated wildly — from $45 billion in 2008 to more than $100 billion in 2011 and, now, $68 billion.

Political and financial compromises led officials to scale back plans that now mean trains will be forced to slow down and share tracks in major cities, leading critics to question whether it will truly be the 220-mph (355-kph) "high-speed rail" voters were promised.

The high-speed rail business plan says trains will run between the greater Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay Area by 2029. But construction has been postponed repeatedly, and a court victory this summer by opponents threatens further delays; a Sacramento County Superior Court judge said the state rail authority’s plan goes against the promise made to voters to identify all the funding for the first segment before starting construction.


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Even the former chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Quentin Kopp, has turned against the current project, saying in court papers that it "is no longer a genuine high speed rail system."

In the Central Valley, there is intense distrust of the authority, which has started buying up property, land and businesses, some of which have been in families for generations.

At the dimly lit Cosmopolitan Cafe, office workers line up alongside farmers and paramedics to order sandwiches as waitresses expeditiously call out order numbers. Four decades’ worth of memorabilia and yellowing newspaper restaurant reviews line the faux-wood walls in the space that Lanfranco has owned for most of his life.

Lanfranco says the sum he was offered to buy the property does not come close to replacing the space he owns, debt-free. The adjacent parking lot — a rare commodity — is packed with pickup trucks and cars each day at lunchtime. Lanfranco declined to say how much he was offered, and the offers are not public record.

"It’s not like it’s just a restaurant that I’ve owned for a couple of years and now I can just go replace it. It’s something that I’ve put the last 45 years of my life into," the 66-year-old says.

His is just one of hundreds of properties the state needs to buy for the rail project or seize through eminent domain if they cannot reach a deal. Many owners are resentful after years of what they say have been confusing messages and misleading information.

Rail officials acknowledge that the agency hasn’t always communicated with those most affected by the project, and part of their work in the Central Valley is strictly public relations.

"Frankly, it set us back, because we, in effect, created questions and even opposition by just failing to give people answers," says Jeff Morales, the authority’s chief executive officer since 2012.

For supporters, high-speed rail is the solution to California’s future transportation needs, when the state’s already jammed, rutted highways and busy airports won’t be enough for a population expected to hit 46 million by 2035.

It will create hundreds of good-paying jobs for several years as officials tear down buildings, draw engineering plans, survey wildlife and, eventually, lay track. It will also help move the Central Valley beyond the dominant low-wage agriculture sector, Morales says.

"By connecting Fresno, Bakersfield and the other cities of the Central Valley to Los Angeles and San Francisco ... it just creates more opportunities for people," he says. "It creates a whole different sort of economy that’ll just raise the Central Valley."

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