Photo Credit M. Terry

San Fernando Valley residents, including businessman John Rosengrant, made sure the HSR board heard how upset they were with a proposed route they said could potentially destroy communities.

This is  one of a continued series of stories on the High-Speed Rail

Hundreds of residents, including some elected officials from communities across the San Fernando Valley and beyond, descended on a board meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSR) on Tuesday, June 9, held at the downtown L.A. Ronald Reagan State Building.

Regardless of what community they came from, they had a similar message for Gov. Jerry Brown — to oppose the HSR’s plan to run the 200 mph bullet train through their community.  

The opposition was fierce, and it took the entire day to get through all of the public comments.  

During a pre-meeting news conference held by those who represented the four proposed routes, residents from the City of San Fernando stood beside a banner they brought that read: “Governor Brown’s Legacy — Displacement, Destruction, Devastation.”

Many were critical of the High-Speed Rail Authority for holding a meeting during a time when many working residents could not attend.  

The City of San Fernando arranged for an early morning bus to take residents, mostly retired seniors, who were able to take the time to go downtown.

“Maybe they did this deliberately, because there would have been hundreds more, if it weren’t held during working hours,” San Fernando Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin noted.

For those that were there — from Acton/Agua Dulce, the City of San Fernando, Pacoima, Lake View Terrace, Shadow Hills and even by some who traveled in from the Central Valley — the thread of complaints directed to the HSR board members who sat on stage was the same: “The high-speed rail will destroy communities, take homes and businesses, and hurt our lives.”  

One after the other, sounding as if they had one voice, they described the many HSR community meetings in their respective areas as a superficial exercise with presentations given by well-paid consultants who have ignored their concerns.  

They all had the same fear — their homes and property would be taken from them through eminent domain. Some the testimony was heartbreaking, and some people choked back tears.

“What am I going to tell my 5-year-old daughter when she’s asked if we are going to lose our home,” asked one young mother from Shadow Hills, who had her daughter at her side. “What can I tell her and still be telling her the truth?”

John Rosengrant became emotional as he told the board he is hit hard with a double whammy. “My home is in the path of the proposed route in San Canyon and my business is along the route in the city of San Fernando. It is a double whammy.”

Rosengrant, visibly shaken, quickly exited the meeting but later told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that everyone in his community is now upside down with their homes.  

“You feel upset and helpless. I worked for 30 years, and then you find out that your home is now useless. You can’t sell it, it’s only worth a quarter of what it once was and it’s devastating.”

Rosengrant said there is a chance that his house might be spared, but not his neighbor’s across the street. Even if his home is spared, he will be forced to live 80 yards from a train tressel, which would become his unsightly view.

“I worked very hard for my home and business, and with eminent domain they drive the value of your home down and then give you what’s left. No one handed anything to me,” he said.

He owns the business Legacy Effects in the City of San Fernando, which produces special effects for movies, and has to consider uprooting his business from San Fernando. “Everything is in limbo right now,” Rosengrant said.

He said he was told the train could pass through eight to nine times an hour.

Residents Compare Notes

It was the first time residents from all of the routes had the opportunity to meet each other at one location. As the overflow crowd waited outside the meeting room for the name of their community to be called, they shared their frustration, compared experiences, and even a few jokes.

“We’ve heard Michelle Boehm’s method of speaking without giving us answers so many times, we could probably give her presentation,” said one resident from Acton, speaking to another from Shadow Hills.

“They’ve just gone through the motions, handling us with public relations and offering a small bottled-water and a granola bar bought in bulk from Costco,” a group of new acquaintances laughed as they exchanged contact information.

But even the jokes turned into some anger.

“This damn train isn’t even being built here in this country, even the raw materials, the steel is coming from other countries. They are going to take away your homes and jobs but then say they are going to employ people. That doesn’t mean that we will get those jobs after they mow down the places we work,” was heard in the crowd.

The only people who spoke favorably about the massive project appeared to be the consultants who attended, hoping to pitch themselves to HSR representatives in search of a contract, or unions that are standing at the ready for construction jobs.  

While sharing information, some residents expressed their unhappiness with their local legislators who have failed to speak out in their behalf.  

Pacoima and San Fernando residents in particular are unhappy with L.A. City Councilman Felipe Fuentes, who last week sent a letter to the High-Speed Rail Authority to encourage that the route impacting the Shadow Hills community be taken off the table, while the SR 14 route — impacting the Northeast San Fernando Valley communities of Sun Valley, Pacoima, city of San Fernando, Sylmar, Santa Clarita — stay on the table.

The letter, also signed by L.A. County Supervisors Michael Antonovich and newly elected Sheila Kuhel, recommended changing the SR 14 route from a grade surface construction to tunneling through the Northeast San Fernando valley communities.

“Two of those officials don’t even represent the City of San Fernando,” said Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin. “What right do they have to speak for our community?

“We don’t want this route coming through and destroying our town period,” Ballin said emphatically.   

San Fernando City Manager Brian Saeki told the HSR board its latest report incorrectly reported the City of San Fernando’s position in writing that there was support to tunnel through the town. He asked that the record be corrected.

Ballin laid out the sequence of letters sent to the board, none of which she said articulated support for the SR 14 route in any form. “The problem is they just don’t listen. We don’t want this route through our town above ground, underground or anywhere near our town, it will destroy us,” Ballin said.  

“We were on the brink of bankruptcy just two short years ago,” Saeki told the board. “Ironically, [if SR 14 is approved] that would put us back in the same position that we were two years ago. And quite frankly, I don’t know if we could recover from that again.”

Saeki recommended that future meetings be brought to the City of San Fernando.

Aware that many in the community were upset with local and state legislators, Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (39th District) issued the following statement on the same day the board meeting was held. It read:

“In an earlier statement, I declared my opposition to the high-speed rail routes proposed and still disagree with the routes. To date I have heard the numerous and overwhelming concerns raised by my communities. I share the serious concerns of my constituency as the four routes proposed not only severely impact urban areas of my district negatively, but could potentially devastate rural and natural lands.

“After meeting with constituents, other stakeholders, and reviewing proposed routes, I have been made aware of the clear impacts to local businesses, properties, and overall quality of life. Additionally, many of my community’s questions still have gone unanswered, communities continue to remain frustrated with the process, and are still unclear as to their options or the next steps.”

Lopez said that she would be arranging a meeting with the High Speed Rail authority and planning a community meeting.

Is There Still Time

Residents worry that it may be too little too late.

Tuesday’s board meeting marked the end of the HSR’s so-called “community meetings” and on Wednesday, June 10, officials issued a news release announcing the “shift in the program from planning to construction,” awarding a contract to a “seasoned team of international experts with experience delivering high-speed rail systems from around the world.”

This latest announcement underscores the comments made by many residents who complained that the board and their staff have been simply checking off the boxes but are really working quickly to move the project.

David Peterson, a Santa Clarita resident who would be impacted by the SR 14 route, questioned nearly all the facts claims made by HSR.

“Is it not a fact that for less than $20 billion, we could add HOV lanes to the [Interstate] 5 between Santa Clarita and San Jose? Is it not a fact that this would likely serve more travelers per hour than the train? Is is not a fact that we will add the lanes anyway, when it turns out that no one except the rich one percent can afford to take the [luxury bullet] train?” Peterson said.

Benny Bernal, describing himself as “a father of six that wants his children to know the history of the City of San Fernando,” said he was very concerned with the lack of answers he received while attending the past community meetings.

“I’m here to represent not only San Fernando, [but] Sylmar, Lake View Terrace and other communities,” said Bernal, adding that among his concerns is the groundwater.

“We are talking about drilling underground. I have tried to ask your consultants about the water and I can’t get answers. They just say that they’ll try to collect as much underground water as possible.”

Bernal also made another strong point, telling the board that eminent domain will be devastating to working class communities in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. “When our parents buy their home, they don’t buy it as an investment. They buy it to die in it, and to hand their home down from generation to generation.”

Miguel Montanez, a resident of San Fernando for 42 years, said, “There is strong opposition to this route. It is close by the San Fernando Mission — it become the City of San Fernando, and has a closely knit community of hard working Hispanic families. It will negatively impact the preservation of our historical city.”  

Mary Carrillo who described herself as a grandmother to local San Fernando City Councilmember Robert Gonzales, said, “My family has lived in San Fernando since 1944, for five generations and I have a great-granddaughter who I am hoping will live in San Fernando and make it six generations. Our town is small, it is  only 2.4 [square] miles and this train will cut our city in half. We are historical, we gave the San Fernando Valley it’s name, we had the first library, we have superseded earthquakes and natural disasters. But now it will be this train [if it goes through] that will destroy my community.”

Carrillo said this was the fifth meeting that she’s attended but only the first where she’s been allowed to speak.  

Mary Mendoza, representing a group calling itself “Residents for a Better San Fernando,” said that they oppose the high-speed rail coming through town above ground or underground.

“In our town, we all know each other, our kids go to school together and we worship together. If this goes through, we stand to lose the quaintness of our city.”

Margarita Montanez, a resident for more than forty years, said she raised her children in San Fernando.

“On Saturday and Sunday and Monday, I went out walking and noticed that the community was very upset over this train.The reason why is because we don’t want the train to divide our city or build a 20-foot wall.”

Resident Steven Bravo attempted to give the board a visualization of his town.

“The corridor [through San Fernando] is very small and we already have the Southern Pacific train using the tracks and the Metrolink,” Bravo said. He and other residents have pointed out that there isn’t the room to add tracks for a bullet train. He, like many others, referenced the need for water that is needed much more than a luxury train.

Bravo made the crowd chuckle when he concluded, “Everyone check your toilets once a month.”

Christina Orbayo, a Panorama City resident, said she stood in solidarity with all of the communities who testified.

“I voted for the high-speed rail but I didn’t vote for the destruction of communities,” she said. “That route would cut through the heartbeat of the City of San Fernando. What about our children’s future? That would impact our future, our children, now. By building this route here, by trying to think about the future you are destroying the past.”

Sharon Kimmel was born in the San Fernando Hospital and went to San Fernando High School. “I raised in Pacoima and I’m really devastated, the fact that historically that train tracks have been used to segregate people of color. And this high-speed rail is like a railroad train on steroids.”

Kimmel said she was attending in solidarity with the other communities and recommended that the state “really look into the  impact on communities of color, not just today but years from now.” She questioned the process of eminent domain, and the issues and practices of fair housing.

Cindy Montanez, a former mayor in the City of San Fernando and state Assemblywoman, was critical of the “public process” and urged that the SR 14 route through the Northeast San Fernando Valley, and the E 2 route through Shadow Hills, be eliminated.

“Over the weekend, I collected a thousand signatures for a petition against SR 14 in over two days,” Montanez said.

Lifelong Pacoima resident and a well known activist Genaro Ayala, with other Pacoima residents, started the organization “Communities Against Displacement” to oppose the high-speed rail. Ayala spoke of his treasured family legacy in the Pacoima/San Fernando/Sylmar communities, and ended his testimony to the board by putting them on notice.

“We don’t want to be displaced. Our history is riddled with a lot of displacement, starting with Chavez Ravine and now it’s SR 14,” he said.

“We like our communities.  We know you have a job to do, and we are going to do our job, too.”

Next week, The San Fernando Valley Sun continues to share the testimony of those who attended Tuesday’s meeting