January 27, 2014
By Marc Bussanich 

Sacramento, CA—Dan Richard of the California High Speed Rail Authority seemed pretty confident during his testimony last week before the House Transportation Committee that the state’s high-speed rail project should break ground soon, maybe in the spring. The state’s AFL-CIO feels the same way.

Sara Flocks, public policy coordinator for the California Labor Federation, which consists of 1,200 affiliates and two million members, said that despite all the hurdles put up since Californians voted in favor of the state issuing almost $10 billion in bonds to finance the project, it’ll start soon.

“I think we’re going to be OK. It’s still going to take a lot of work that we didn’t anticipate, but we have a very competent [California High Speed Rail] authority, we have a supportive governor and over $9 billion in state bonds approved by the voters,” said Flocks.

At the recent hearing in Washington, D.C., Richard of the high-speed rail authority was grilled by Rep. Jeff Denham, the chair of the House railroad subcommittee and representative for California’s 10th CD, where there is opposition to the project.

Denham consistently asked Richard how will the state match federal funds when a state judge recently ruled the authority couldn’t access the $9 billion in bonds until the authority rewrites its business plan to show it could finance the whole project.

But Richard informed Denham that the authority’s revised business plan complies with the judge’s order to identify all funding sources to build the first 29-mile usable segment between Madera and Fresno.

Also testifying at the hearing were Denham’s California Republican colleagues, Rep. Doug LaMalfa and Rep. David Valadao. LaMalfa ridiculed the project by saying the authority’s high-speed rail project is based on “19th century technology” and ridiculed the project’s benefits to reduce greenhouse gases by asking, “Global warming, what’s that?”

When asked if California labor is frustrated by Reps. Denham, LaMalfa and Valadao attempts to stop the project, Flocks said they’re not surprised because the California Republicans have introduced bills to stop it but Democrats are in the majority.  

“We have Democrats who occupy almost every statewide office. We have a two-thirds supermajority in both Houses and a Democratic governor. The only way Republicans can get any traction is by constantly blocking anything the Democrats want,” said Flocks said.

Despite the opposition from Republicans, Flocks noted that the project is critical not only to help the state reduce air pollution and relieve congestion on the highways and airports, but will provide good paying jobs for thousands of unemployed workers, especially in the Central Valley.

“The project will create 100,000 jobs over 20 years to build it with the majority of them created in the Central Valley where unemployment is up to 30 percent among the construction trades. Other than high-speed rail, there really is no other plan for economic development in the Central Valley,” she said.

Flocks noted that the Central Valley is already experiencing a population boon because immigrant workers are migrating to work in the valley’s agricultural sector.

“The Central Valley is a growing divide because you have an increase in immigration of low-wage farm workers working on farms owned by wealthy white landowners,” said Flocks. “The high-speed rail project would create not only construction jobs but permanent jobs in the train stations such as concessions and ticket takers, and there'll be job creation with development around the stations and of course on the trains.”

The California Labor Federation hasn’t been sitting on its hands as the political battle for the nation’s first true high-speed rail has been raging. Rather, the federation was actively involved in campaigning for the project.

Flocks mentioned they formed a high-speed rail-working group to plan events. Whenever there was a high-speed rail hearing in Sacramento, they mobilized hundreds of people to attend to make sure working people were there to talk about the project’s importance for job creation.

“We organized a high-speed rail tour and transported unemployed workers along the route to hold press conferences. We also went to Washington, D.C. and lobbied hard with the California delegation,” said Flocks.

Although heavy construction hasn’t started, operating engineers and laborers have been surveying and leveling along the route. The Central Valley Republicans are promising more legislation to stop the project but Flocks remains confident.

“If we get to the point where the state judge approves the authority’s new business plan and the bond funds are then released, we’ll be OK.” 


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