A Call To Slow Down California's High-Speed Rail Residents of Corcoran, Calif., an agricultural community with a high unemployment rate, question whether the state's high-speed rail line will move its economy forward or leave a trail of unpaid bills. A state legislator is leading the call for reassessing the plan.
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A Call To Slow Down California's High-Speed Rail

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A Call To Slow Down California's High-Speed Rail

A Call To Slow Down California's High-Speed Rail

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Wisconsin, Ohio and most recently, Florida, have now turned down billions of dollars for high-speed rail; dollars from Washington. But not California. It's moving forward with its high-speed project and welcomes any and all federal money left behind. The first leg of the train is set to run between two cities in California's bread basket: Fresno and Bakersfield.

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji visited a farm town on the proposed line and she talked with community leaders who aren't yet onboard with the plan.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Corcoran calls itself the farming capital of California. There's a great big sign right in front of the main drive that says so and a farm right across the street from it just in case you need proof. Corcoran has an old timey feel to it and that's what City Manager Ron Hoggard likes.

Mr. RON HOGGARD (City Manager, Corcoran, California): We're small-town America. We're Mayberry.

MERAJI: The analogy would be dead-on if nearly half of Mayberry's population were behind bars. You see, 12 of the 25,000 Corcoran residents are in prison.�There are two prisons here, a lot of farmland, and an unemployment rate of 17 percent. Corcoran represents the path of least resistance for California's controversial high-speed rail project: lots of open space and a bad economy.

But Mayor Larry Hanshew has a long list of unanswered questions.

Mr. LARRY HANSHEW (Mayor, Corcoran, California): Why start something if we don't know we can finish it? And the job that it would create for Corcoran are fantastic - that's great, we love it, we need it, we want to see the jobs, we want to see the economy of Corcoran really begin to thrive. But sometimes you wonder, at what cost?

MERAJI: Hanshew and Hoggard wonder if the�jobs created will be permanent, where the train will go, how noisy it will be and if there's enough money to finish the project. On top of those worries, they're fielding concerns from locals like this one.

Mr. BARRIE BOYETT (Farmer): I'm Barrie Boyett and I farmed here in Corcoran for over 50 years.

MERAJI: Boyett farms cotton, wheat and pistachios on his land. Although he doesn't know exactly where the tracks will go, he's convinced that a bullet train will kill his livelihood.

Mr. BOYETT: It'll ruin our ranch, I mean, absolutely ruin it. And I know how the government works. When they get ready to buy land, they'll buy at the very cheapest price they can buy it at. So I know exactly how that'll work.

MERAJI: Boyett doesn't know why California is rushing to do something other states have rejected and going ahead without the $45 billion the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates it will take to get the job done.

Mr. BOYETT: I don't plant a crop until I know I've got the money to finish that crop.

MERAJI: California High-Speed Rail Authority deputy director Jeff Barker says that's not the right way to think about it. He says it's much more like buying a house than planting crops. You start with a good down payment, in this case, $3.6 billion federal dollars and nearly 10 billion from California taxpayers, and you go from there.

Mr. JEFF BARKER (Deputy Director, California High-Speed Rail Authority): That's because a home is an investment and infrastructure is an investment in our future. And the bottom line is we're going to go from 38 million to 50 million people. And our freeways are going to be clogged, our airport runways are going to be clogged. We need another transportation option.

MERAJI: California State Senator Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat, agrees that high-speed rail can be a good investment and a great transportation alternative. But he wants more government oversight. He doesn't have confidence in the current authority's cost estimates, ridership numbers and proposed ticket prices. And Lowenthal says he's just not convinced California's Central Valley, with its relatively sparse population, is the right place to start.

State Senator ALAN LOWENTHAL (Democrat, California): I just would really like us to take a deep breath, not to make decisions because there's a gun to our head, because unless we make this decision, we're going to lose this federal money, because still, the largest contributors are the people of California, and we need accurate data. We're not ready to throw the baby out with the bath like other states have done, but we want to make sure we do it right.

MERAJI: For Jeff Barker of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, taking that deep breath might lead to the end of the line for high-speed rail in California. He's convinced that if you build it, they will come.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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