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In Central Valley, high-speed rail opposition runs deep

Courtesy of Reanna Bergman

The state’s plan to route the California bullet train through some of the richest agricultural land in the Central Valley has encountered intense and unexpected opposition.

It even roiled last week’s Kings Fair in Hanford, where the lavender “people’s choice” ribbon in the photo contest went to a picture of a bullet train running through a ranch-style home.

Winning photographer Reanna Bergman said she created the image on her computer, combining a publicity photo of the bullet train with a shot of the house in Hanford she shares with her husband and three kids.

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As often happens, art was inspired by life: The Bergmans learned recently that the state High-Speed Rail Authority’s right of way goes through their living room. The image sums up her feelings about the situation, she said.

When she entered the photo in the fair, “I didn’t even know if (the judges) would accept it – it’s a collage, or whatever you want to call it,” she said in a phone interview.

“But when I got down there, they were really excited about it, because the Kings Fair people are anti-high-speed rail.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The rail authority presumed that its $45 billion construction project would face environmental and political opposition in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles basin. Rail authority officials chose to build the first segment next year in the valley because they were confident the project would be welcome.

But as a panel of rail experts, called the peer review group, noted recently, when it comes to the bullet train, “local opposition emerges when any route approaches finalization.” 

In the valley south of Fresno, the issue is the right of way. Farmers presumed the bullet train would run along the Highway 99 corridor to Bakersfield.

Instead, the route heads due south from the highway, through pastures, orchards and residential portions of Hanford. Also in the bullet train’s path: a series of high-tech dairies that are valued at $100 million, says dairyman Joe Machado, 50, owner of a 1,000-cow dairy that is among those targeted.

Some opponents in Kings County have taken to protest. They turn out at rail authority meetings – yesterday’s was in Bakersfield – and they have a Facebook page, Californians Against High Speed Rail-Kings County.

One anti-rail activist is Frank Oliveira, who with his siblings owns four farms that lie in the bullet train’s path. His protest is inspired by literature – Frank Norris' “The Octopus,” the famed novel of conflict over property rights between 19th-century California farmers and a heartless and rapacious railroad.

As Oliveira notes in “The Octopus Revisited,” a series of essays posted on the Facebook page, Norris’ novel is based on the true story of a land dispute between Hanford-area farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It resulted in the 1880 Mussel Slough incident, a gunfight between farmers and reputed railroad men in which seven died. As Oliveira wrote recently:

It is weird how after 130 or so years, here we are doing battle with the railroad all over again.

What is at stake again are farms that are still the economic engine of this area.

For those of you that know me, you know that I am clearly critical of and opposed to what the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is about to do to the citizens and businesses of Kings County.

The CHSRA's current plan will seize chunks of 311 private farm properties and bring few if any benefits to our community. …

Some of you also know that I am a history buff and I muse sometimes at how history seems to repeat itself.

I am not suggesting that anyone take arms against the CHSRA as the farmers did in 1880.

Please do not call the sheriff yet.

I do believe that now is the time for us to directly battle the CHSRA administratively, legally and politically to protect what is ours, our way of life and our children’s futures.

More protests could be in the offing today in Merced, where state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, is hosting a hearing on the bullet train’s impact on California agriculture.

Cannella "believes high-speed rail has great potential but is concerned that legitimate issues that have been raised were not addressed," said spokeswoman Jessica Hsiang.

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