A. Garcia / El Sol

Dozens of residents gathered at Maclay Middle School in Pacoima on Saturday, May 16, at an Open House organized by the High-Speed Rail Authority.

Of particular concern to residents is the so-called SR 14, a route that would travel through the heavily populated areas of Sun Valley, Pacoima, San Fernando and Sylmar heading north toward the rail’s proposed Palmdale station.

For the train to pass through these communities, at estimated speeds of at least 200 mph, there is also discussion to build 20 ft walls to encase the train. Pacoima residents are concerned that their community of many long time working families would suffer immeasurably— losing entire streets, their homes and the very businesses that are their livelihoods.

Many living in the Northeast Valley have toiled through economic hardship following the loss of large manufacturers over the years, going back to the closing of the GM plant in Van Nuys and an aerospace manufacturer.  The prospect for the high-speed rail to barrel through densely populated residential neighborhoods piles on trouble for many residents who still face fragile economic conditions and adds  public safety to the mix of concerns. 

The nonprofit organization, Pacoima Beautiful estimates that the SR 14 route would impact more than 8,000 families and 10,000 current structures. The organization points to the pattern of economic and environmental injustice when projects not wanted in upscale communities are imposed on poorer working class communities.

They believe Pacoima, along with the other communities along this route, will be devastated . 

“Looking at it from a moral issue, why would they ever pick this community?” questioned Michael Gonzalez, Co-Chair of Communities Against Displacement (CAD), a community group that is opposed to the route SR-14 in its present form.

“Why would they pick the most heavily populated area to put that route? If and when it happens that the SR 14 route is included in the Environmental Impact Report [to continue to study this route to move forward] we’re going to be hysterical and up in arms.”

Karina Ceja, also co-chair of the group, expressed the same concern.

“I feel like they’re dismissing our community,” she said, noting that, in her view, the train would not bring any benefits to Pacoima but only cause division and problems.

“We don’t want the SR 14 route to be built here. There are other alternatives that won’t affect our people,” added Ceja.

The group of residents have created a “Stop the High-Speed Rail” banner and protest signs in English and Spanish to let others know about the “threat to their community”  and demonstrate  their opposition to the route.

Norma Ramirez, another Pacoima resident, worries about the environmental impacts the high-speed rail will pose on her community.

“We already have problems with asthma and other issues. We don’tnknow what this will bring,” she said.

She’s concerned that the actual building of the track and the construction of a 20-foot wall along the route will place a literal wedge in her neighborhood. “They would be displacing a lot of people,” she said.

At  the meeting Jaime Arias — a lifelong resident of Pacoima — was disappointed that the meeting wasn’t set up for community dialogue. He  requested to speak directly to a high-speed rail representative.

“My first concern is that this route would displace a lot of people who are already on a fixed income. Once they are displaced [and their homes taken through eminent domain] where would they go?” Arias asked.

“We already have a large homeless population in Pacoima” he said. For many people, one move can put them right on the edge of homelessness because the cost of everything has gone up. You can see homeless people right around Pacoima City Hall. We have people living in converted garages and those that own the homes are also on the edge and that’s why they convert their garages. That’s why you see so many cars on the street because they can’t put their cars in their [converted] garages.”

 Arias, like other residents, worries that the high speed rail would force more people into homelessness. He said that families will be fractionalized; and for those who may receive market value for their homes from the High-Speed Rail Authority, they may find that they will be forced to pay higher property taxes when they move elsewhere for less space than they currently have, which could mean that they can no longer house elderly family members.

Arias said he is disappointed in his Los Angeles council representative, Felipe Fuentes who he found largely absent and separating himself from hearing the concerns of community members.

“I recall him attending one meeting held by the Pacoima Neighborhood Council and he acted like a cheerleader for the high-speed rail.” Arias then echoed the question that many residents have asked. “Why do they want to put this route here? You would think that those that ride the high-speed rail would like to travel by California’s beautiful mountains and oceans. I would think that would be a great tourist attraction for the high-speed rail.”

Residents, including members of “Communities Against Displacement,” are not entirely against the high-speed rail concept. They object to having the brunt of it’s impact imposed on those most in need.

Joel Fajardo, mayor of the City of San Fernando, notes he’s not against the high-speed rail either, only the SR 14 route. He estimates if the route passes through the heart of its small city it could mean a $1.3 million annual loss in revenue, as the construction would mean the removal of numerous businesses already established along Truman Street.

“That’s a drop in the bucket for Los Angeles, but it’s a huge part of our budget. It would mean economic ruin,” he said.

Another route being considered would pass through Shadow Hills and tunnel through underground through the Angeles National Forest. Foothill communities have opposed this proposal, claiming it would damage underground water sources and destroy the forest.

Kelly Decker of the SAFE (Save the Los Angeles Forest for Everyone) Coalition, said they oppose all the routes proposed so far.

“None of the routes are acceptable for the people in the San Fernando Valley,” she said. “We’re not going to shove it into other people’s yards. The San Fernando Valley would be destroyed by this.”

Decker admits the issue has pitted communities against one another. “That’s what the High-Speed Rail Authority wanted, to divide and conquer, and we’re not going to put up with it,” she said.

Residents speculated that perhaps to diminish boisterous and direct questions that residents have attempted to ask of the high-speed rail officials at other meetings. The HSR “Open House in Pacoima” was set up for residents to hear a “formal presentation,” and then didn’t allow for public questions and answers.

Instead, residents were routed to different stations around computer screens where name tagged representatives from the High-Speed Rail Authority stood to answer “technical” questions about the route.

“They would only address the routes, the possible environmental impact and other technical issues around the project,” Arias described. “They controlled the situation and were in control of all the information. It wasn’t education, it was more like indoctrination,” he said.

 Residents have noted that at each meeting, the high-speed rail officials point to thousands of jobs that they claim will be created, implying that they will go to people in the local communities.

Arias also said he doesn’t believe Spanish-speaking residents have been given enough consideration.

“At one meeting, there was a Spanish speaker who the San Fernando Gardens and was afraid that he and his neighbors will be uprooted just like he had to be uprooted from his home country and now he is older so it’s a lot harder,” conveyed Arias.

“Voices like his need to be heard. He makes very good points and other people need to hear what he has to say. Really good interpreters are needed at these meetings. Instead [the HSR reps] get focused on the building of the high-speed rail and don’t address how it will affect people. They want to stay away from the human factor.” 

Arias said he just can’t believe what the High-Speed Rail representatives say.

“Their actions say something else. In other words, they are going to be the vessel [of communication] and they really don’t want to hear from the community.”

The next meeting is a HSR “Open House” meeting scheduled for May 28 at Las Palmas Park in the City of San Fernando. City officials are encouraging residents to attend to “let their voices be heard.”

Following this final round of meetings, the High-Speed Rail board of directors will meet on June 9 at the Ronald Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles.

 Lisa Alley, a spokesperson for the High-Speed Rail said she “understands that emotions are high at this stage,” and said residents who want to attend the Board meeting can make a public comment and will be allowed 90 seconds to speak after the Pledge of Alligence.”

The HSR “Open House” in San Fernando will be at Los Palmas Park in the City of San Fernando on Thursday, May 28 at 5 p.m. The park is located at 505 S. Huntington Street, in San Fernando.