SoCal High Speed Train Delay: Sweet Victory for the Northeast Valley

By Denyse Selesnick
Originally Published on the website, CityWatch 10 March 2016

MY TURN-I love traveling by train. I have used them in Europe, Asia, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and San Diego. In Los Angeles…not so much! In fact, probably like many of you, I have yet to take the train from the San Fernando Valley to Downtown — even though I have every good intention of doing so…next time.

Therefore, I was curious as to the reasons behind the pro and cons of the proposed Super Bullet train which is supposed to whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and forty minutes. Naturally, I would have had more than a passing interest if it were going through my back yard.

I covered a Town Hall meeting sponsored by Assembly Member Patty Lopez last summer and reported on it in CityWatch.  In my article, I noted that the majority of attendees were very much against HSR as it was proposed:

If we want to go to San Francisco in an hour we can fly! Why not take that money and fix our freeways, highways, bridges etc. which will benefit all Californians — not just those who are commuters, tourists or legislators going to and from Sacramento.”

After that, it was on to the next subject for me, but I kept receiving updates from David DePinto, President of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Association. And boy, was he persistent. He has sent me emails over the months reminding me what the homeowners, neighborhood councils and other civic organizations in the Northeast San Fernando Valley were doing — and also what their elected legislators and City Council members were not doing!

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) recently determined that building the first leg of the Bullet Train from the Central Valley to Burbank was too expensive; it would take too much time and had too much opposition. And the fact that they’ve decided to go North instead of South is now old news.

The Los Angeles TimesDaily News and other local valley newspapers have covered this, but what’s interesting to write about now is how a Northeast Valley group, with some help from the outside, accomplished its goal of stopping the HSR from heading our way…at least for now.

I frequently write about how important stakeholder participation can be – it’s one of my favorite soap box topics. Save Angeles Forest For Everyone (S.A.F.E) is a perfect example of this and it might be instructive for some of you in other parts of this great City who are facing similar problems.

The challenge in the Northeast Valley was enormous. Governor Jerry Brown chose the Bullet Train as his legacy; it was to be his crowning achievement. His father, Governor Pat Brown, on the other hand, is best remembered for something truly great — his support of the California State College and University system.

Over all, Governor Jerry Brown has done a good job for California. As liberal as he was thirty years ago, he has been much more practical in this second eight year term. During his first eight year term (1974-1982,) he initiated many of the environmental regulations we have today. In his current stint in office, he has established a rainy day fund, imposed stricter environmental regulations and has established healthcare oversight. All have benefitted from his support. But, in the final analysis he is a politician and the titular head of the State Democratic majority. He wants the Bullet train.

Unfortunately, this is coming at a time when we need to address how to pay for expensive infrastructure building and repair, the drought and resultant water shortages, college tuition increases, potholed streets and so much more.

Now that the plans have changed, the CHSRA has invited community comments to review alternative proposals to the new Business Plans by mid-April. According to De Pinto, this has been an almost two-year battle since the neighborhoods in the Northeast part of the San Fernando Valley received an invitation in the mail to a meeting on the proposed high speed rail that had been approved by the voters in 2008.

There was no in-person meeting. No phone call. No heads up from well-briefed elected officials. They all learned about it in the mail. De Pinto was quick to point out that neighboring communities such as Pacoima, Sylmar, San Fernando, Santa Clarita, Aqua Dulce and Acton had been dealing with this threat for even longer — more than 5 years.

The proposal sounded nothing like what was approved by the electorate. At a Pacoima Neighborhood Council meeting, City Councilman Felipe Fuentes tried to sell the audience on the project’s jobs benefits and its potential to close auto salvage yards in the vicinity. When the wife of a worker at a salvage yard expressed concern that her husband would lose his job, the audience’s discomfort with Fuentes became apparent and much more vocal.

Similarly, at a City Hall meeting with Councilman Fuentes, a group of community leaders from the Foothills communities in the northeast San Fernando Valley voiced their opposition. It was obvious that Fuentes was gung ho on the project and after hearing the opposition he stood up, pointed to maps of his District and said that he did not need the more easterly portion of his District, telling the attendees to “do the math.” Those in attendance got the message – their Councilman, elected to represent the entire 7th District, was going to pit neighborhood against neighborhood if necessary. It became clear to the attendees that their Councilman did not understand how united his constituents were in their opposition to the high speed train — especially the segment that was being planned to travel above ground.

It was then that De Pinto and other community leaders realized if they were going to mount any kind of opposition, they couldn’t count on their elected officials. They would have to go it alone…at least at the outset. There have been many opposition groups formed in our City to oppose one thing or another and the success rate has not been great.

This time, though, the core group decided to carefully base their opposition on facts and business-like presentations and to play it by the rules. They participated in public comment periods, writing 20 and 30-page detailed comment letters they referred to as “manifestos.” They attended public meetings and waited patiently to express their views, yet found that many of CHSRA’s meetings allowed for no public comment. They conducted tours showing what they were confident were “show stoppers” or “fatal flaws.” They got lip service from CHSRA and practically no support from their elected officials.

DePinto’s group rallied 40 or more neighborhood councils, several 501-4 nonprofits, and other civic groups; they knew they would also need help from lawyers, engineers and geologists. Having no money and no official structure, they called upon members of the community to donate these professional services, calling their umbrella group Save Angeles Forest for Everyone or S.A.F.E. The website alone serves as a model for what can be done by volunteers. Check it out here.  (** See Dave DePinto’s letter to elected officials below.) 

Over the last almost two years they have conducted a thoroughly professional campaign. A public information meeting was held on January 23, 2015 at All Nations Church that was attended by more than 2,300 people. They have printed lawn signs, brochures and sent out a multitude of press releases; the media has become very interested in their message. They journeyed to Sacramento this past January to attend an Assembly Budget Sub-Committee oversight meeting to make factual presentations where they were treated to the usual political run around — given one minute to speak by Committee Chairman Richard Bloom after CHSRA spokespersons filibustered the meeting for 70 of its 90 minutes. People took time away from work, from their families and from personal pursuits — whatever was needed to get the job done. This is because they were essentially alone…with no leadership from any elected officials.

As one of the group said on social media, “After all…it’s only our way of life at stake. Interestingly enough, it was the lower economic communities that would have the worst displacement including cutting the City of San Fernando in half with a ‘sound wall’.”

Up to now, the only elected official who has completely “laid herself across the tracks” is Assembly Member Patty Lopez who has hosted Town Halls and made herself available at community meetings. If you remember, she upset former Assembly Speaker (in-waiting) Raul Bocanegra by mounting a real grass roots campaign.

I noted that, this week, she was fined a small amount of money by the LA Ethics Commission. This was for two accounting errors made during her campaign. I wonder what will happen to the staff members of Filipe Fuentes and Council Member Nury Martinez who were cited for using City time to count ballots in the runoff with Lopez. She now has professional help with accounting.

With the exception of Bocanegra’s hard core supporters, I’m almost positive that not one of Lopez’ constituents care. She is the one Assembly Member you actually see. She turns up at all kinds of events and has introduced two bills that have passed in the Assembly. Not bad for a non-professional first-termer.

Surprisingly enough, it turns out that a Bocanegra supporter is the one who found the Lopez violation — someone who was involved in the recount. Bocanegra is again challenging her seat.

Talking about ethics, here’s a detail S.A.F.E. discovered: the first of what will be many environmental studies about the routes going through the northeast San Fernando Valley was sourced by CHSRA to the Mineta Transportation Institute based at San Jose State University. No, it was not done locally at CSU Northridge or at a strong agricultural or veterinary university such as UC Davis or even at nearby Pierce College. Mineta did nothing more than an internet search to deliver its “expert” opinion that trains and horses were likely to get along just fine. Do they really believe that tall bridges, gaping tunnel openings, miles of electrical wiring and high speed trains traveling in excess of 100 mph every 10-12 minutes would not disrupt the equestrian portion of the northeastern San Fernando Valley? (See rendering above)

And add to this the fact that six members of the Mineta Board of Trustees were current or former CHSRA board members, contractors or employees, including current CHSRA CEO, Jeff Morales. To S.A.F.E., this sets an unacceptable precedent for environmental studies that would impact every community, a clear conflict of interest and a blatant attack on their own community. The area’s elected officials have yet to speak out publicly on any of these egregious malfeasances — proof positive that grassroots community activism was and remains essential.

In December 2015, just before CHSRA changed its focus to northern California, it cancelled all its community meetings in the northeast San Fernando Valley. It did not deliver on environmental studies promised and were voted on by its Board at its June 9, 2015 meeting in downtown LA.

S.A.F.E. is starting to make more noise now and is working in unity with neighbors along San Fernando Road and the North LA County Communities Protection Coalition. One of its newest campaign themes is “Bite the Bullet.” Instead of asking for the position of their “electeds” on this issue, it is asking what specific action each official will take. There are plans for candidate forums for the various upcoming elections. The fight is on for what is right: complete transparency, guarding the local environment, upholding property values and protecting businesses.

A movement led by State Senator Bob Huff and Board of Equalization Member George Runner is now seeking to qualify a ballot measure for November 2016 that calls for diverting state bond funds from the high speed train project to water storage projects. De Pinto says public support for the high speed train project has plummeted and that many local community groups are helping to obtain the necessary signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot. Click to learn more about “Water Not Trains.”

A second ballot measure, the “No Blank Checks” initiative, would place limits on projects such as the high speed train whose budget has grown from its initial proposed $33 billion to well over $60 billion — with no public input.

As always comments welcome.

  • ●●

** An Open Letter to the Southern California Elected Officials and Staff:

As we’ve informed and advised you for many months, the new business plan for the high speed train project, produced by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) itself, “confirms” that the project into Burbank or Los Angeles could not be built on time or on budget by 2022. 

In a major setback, CHSRA is changing direction and focusing on Northern California…after wasting taxpayer monies, all of our time, and holding us hostage for years under false deadlines and time frames. 

Now, the newest business plan is projecting mindlessly, with no substantiation or funding, that 2029 is when that leg will be completed. Who believes that? 

The California High Speed Rail Authority lied to you about their 2022 schedule, despite evidence it was unattainable, which the SAFE Coalition, The LA Times and other experts provided to everyone. 

We cautioned you that CHSRA was trying to lull leaders and citizens into falsely believing the time would be short and the pain would be minimal. Aren’t we looking more and more like the communities that have had the threat of the 710 Freeway extension hanging over their heads for decades? 

It’s now March…and nothingI Not a single elected official representing the northeast San Fernando Valley has called out the CHSRA for NOT delivering their environmental studies, as promised, in December 2015. 

Not a single elected official representing the northeast San Fernando Valley has called out the CHSRA for NOT engaging independent, third-party experts to conduct upfront environmental studies on water, seismic, tunneling or equines. 

Not a single elected official from the northeast San Fernando Valley has condemned CHSRA for engaging the Mineta Institute to conduct the flawed Equine Study, which is a CLEAR conflict of interest. 

Not a single elected official representing the northeast San Fernando Valley has called for the withdrawal of the Mineta study which clearly compromises the integrity of ANY and ALL environmental studies. 

Not a single elected official from the northeast San Fernando Valley has followed up on their own requests made nearly a year ago in mid-2015, or our repeated requests, for removal of “above ground” elements, from the environmental studies. 

Our communities have been diligent and patient. We have communicated exhaustively to fill the vacuum created by the CHSRA which shuns accountability and transparency. We’ve provided needed leadership. We have stuck to the facts and not engaged in sensationalism or politicking. YOUR communities are unanimous in calling for your support and action on the above issues. 

We call upon every elected official in the northeast San Fernando Valley, individually and collectively, to speak out on these issues. We will not let these issues die and we will continue to call for your representation. 

We fully intend to highlight this issue in all upcoming elections and candidate forums. It is abundantly clear that the CHSRA is violating the premises of Proposition 1 A, and that the already weak public support for high speed trains is declining rapidly. 

On behalf of united communities throughout the northeast San Fernando Valley, we urge you again to make this issue a priority and to not allow further time to elapse. 

Public comments are welcome at any time by CHSRA into their “rolling” EIS/EIR process, AND, as you are aware, they’ve invited public comments about their new business plan by mid-April. 

Sincerely, on behalf of community leaders from: 

Shadow Hills, Sunland-Tujunga, La Tuna Canyon, Lake View Terrace, Kagel Canyon, Sylmar, San Fernando, Pacoima, Sun Valley and north LA County,

Dave DePinto
President, Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn.
Member, SAFE Coalition
www.dontrailroad.us

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Reprinted with permission of the author. Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: Denyse@CityWatchLA.com.  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.