Last Wednesday afternoon in the basement of a church in Monterey Park, a dozen consultants paced quietly around shiny poster boards illustrating the wonders of California’s high-speed rail. On a projector screen off to the side of the room, a video ran on repeat, celebrating the train’s success in Europe. Free cookies and tiny water bottles sat on a nearby table.
A handful of curious citizens watched the video, perused the poster boards and chatted with representatives of the multibillion-dollar bullet-train program.
“We’re in the honeymoon period,” chuckled one rep. “No one’s mad at us.”
That may be true in the outskirts of L.A. County, but in downtown L.A. and surrounding areas, the honeymoon between residents and the still-obscure board members who control the California High Speed Rail Authority is over.
“They need to work in partnership with us rather than shoving stuff down our throats,” says environmentalist Melanie Winter.
Winter is part of a diverse set of environmental advocates, community leaders, elected officials and taxpayer watchdogs who are banding together in the hopes of changing the direction of the rail authority.
The rail authority’s members have little, if any, connection to actual California voters, who polls say are sick of partisan politics. In fact 20 percent of California voters are now registered as “decline to state” political independents. Meanwhile the rail authority board is almost entirely made up of Democratic and Republican operatives and partisans appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger and the Legislature. Its chairman is Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a Republican with a big stake in the route, since Anaheim is a major hub on the proposed line. The others include David Crane, a Schwarzenegger adviser; longtime Sacramento insider Mehdi Morshed; Silicon Valley Democratic insider Rod Diridon Sr.; Democratic political consultant and MTA board member Richard Katz; former Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Schenk; failed Democratic state Assembly candidate Fran Florez; Operating Engineers Local 3 business manager Russ Burns; and Manatt, Phelps attorney Tom Umberg. Retired judge Quentin L. Kopp is one of the powerful board’s few politically independent members.
Five years ago, ANG Newspapers published an explosive investigation by Sean Holstege, reporting on a meeting led by Democratic politico Willie Brown and attended by Katz, Diridon and Morshed, at which Brown advised a roomful of engineering and construction firms that to win contracts to build California’s bullet train they first had to pony up $1 million in fees for Katz and other political consultants. According to the story, the consultants would then pull strings in the Legislature, aimed at getting a bullet train plan on the ballot. The controversy died, but several insiders present at that May 11, 2004, meeting with the big firms hold posts on the rail board.
Few California voters knew this back story last November, when they approved a vaguely worded, $10 million bond measure to begin construction of high-speed rail. The details were fuzzy on where, exactly, the tracks would go, what they would look like, and whether property might be seized.
A year later, Gov. Schwarzenegger is petitioning the White House for half of the federal government’s $8 billion in high speed–rail stimulus funds — although skeptics say California will not win that much. And the state rail authority is narrowing its plans for the route taken by the 125- to 200 mph supertrains.
Plenty of unanswered questions and neglected concerns remain, say those who’ve been interacting with the rail officials. First there’s the murky cost — not only to build the system but also to promote it, using public funds.
In a move that got them tremendous negative press, the rail authority board decided to spend a whopping $9 million on a public-relations campaign supposedly intended to inform Californians about what’s happening. The authority members chose Mercury Public Affairs, a firm that employs GOP political operatives, including Gov. Schwarzenegger insiders Steve Schmidt and Adam Mendelsohn, as well as former Democratic California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.
A few days ago, in the face of ugly public reaction, the Republican and Democratic insiders on the rail board decided to re-bid the contract, and Mercury dropped out. Now, many bullet train watchdogs question whether California voters, and their vision for the trains, will be taken seriously by the politically driven rail authority board.
One emerging dispute involves a proposal to build the rail line down the middle of I-5. Some activists say the idea makes sense, especially when the alternative would be to run the rail lines through communities and parkland, in some cases cleaving them in half. But state officials seem to have dismissed the I-5 route long before real hearings even took place.
“There hasn’t been a rigorous study of that alternative,” says Damon Nagami, a staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an organization of high-powered lawyers working with communities affected by potential routes. “We don’t understand why the rail authority wants to eliminate this option at this very early stage.”
Another debate is over downtown’s historic Union Station. The rail authority seems bent on making Union Station the hub for multiple lines that would meet there. But residents of mostly Latino, mostly working-class Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Glassell Park worry that trains will tear up their communities.
Nagami says he’s pressuring the state to consider building an annex near Union Station to serve as the high-speed hub. “We’re getting the sense the rail authority has its chosen route and is going to push for that,” adds Nagami, whose organization helped to successfully sue the state eight years ago, when it tried to sell empty land near Union Station to an unpopular developer. “The whole point of an environmental-impact review is to carefully examine a range of options.”
Perhaps the most emotional and complex issue is the fate of the Los Angeles River. The river has long been both a target for jokes (“L.A. has a river? You mean the giant half-pipe where they filmed Terminator?) and the object of a slow but concerted revitalization effort, which some fear will be quashed by a train route touted on some maps.
Since 2001, California has spent roughly $100 million developing parks along the river, and many of those newly green areas could be ruined by the bullet train.
“This project, if it’s done wrong, will undo years and years of work, on top of the millions of dollars that have been invested,” says Sean Woods, in charge of L.A. parks for the California State Parks department. Though employed by the state, Woods is part of the coalition fighting to make sure L.A. isn’t steamrolled.
At stake are two parcels near the L.A. River, commonly known as the Cornfield and Taylor Yards. Eight years ago, activists, including lawyers from the NRDC, sued the state and essentially forced it to buy the abandoned plots on the northern edge of downtown Los Angeles and turn them into parks.
Then-Mayor James Hahn vowed to spend $800,000 each year to maintain the Taylor Yards site, half of which is now El Rio de Los Angeles Park. While river supporters want the parks to provide access to the river, one obstacle is the train tracks slicing through Taylor Yards.
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“Rail has been the barrier to access to the river,” says L.A. River activist Joe Linton, who writes the “Creek Freak” blog. “For eight miles in the downtown area there are tracks along the river. The high-speed rail can either make that a worse barrier or it can make that less of a barrier.”
The plan apparently favored by political types who dominate the rail authority would make that barrier worse. Linton says the inviting green areas now envisioned could mutate into an industrialized backyard for a supertrain. “Those were huge struggles that resulted in parkland for communities that absolutely needed it,” Linton says.
An expensive alternate plan calls for the high-speed rail to go underground. Lewis MacAdams, a poet and founder of Friends of the L.A. River, who is also creating a working group of architects and urban planners, known as the Piggyback Group, to propose a new vision for the land around Union Station, says, “That’s the only way to reconnect the city to the river.”
Correction: This article erroneously described Russ Burns as a union leader for train engineers. His union represents construction workers and equipment operators. The $10 million figure for the rail bond should have read $10 billion. Mehdi Morshed is not a member of the rail authority board, but is its executive director.