MADERA, CA- For two hours, three members of Congress and a panel of a half dozen officials and activists pondered California's high speed train project on Tuesday.
None left the event swayed by anything they'd heard.
"I have a strong belief this should go back to the voters," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, after the congressional field hearing he chaired at the Madera Community College Center.
Denham has been one of the San Joaquin Valley's most vocal critics in Congress of the San Francisco to Los Angeles, $68 billion train project. He was joined in that criticism Tuesday by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford.
On the other side was Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who carried the original high speed rail bond bill while serving in the California Legislature.
"The high speed rail authority," said Costa, "has not done everything right, but has gotten their act together in the last 18 months."
That time period is just about when Gov. Jerry Brown installed new leadership and when the project's price tag was downsized.
Rail agency officials continue to insist the first-of-its-kind project will break ground this summer near Fresno, construction on a 29-mile leg between that city and Madera at a cost of about $985 million.
"What we're doing is we're building things in pieces, in stair steps," said Dan Richard, board chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).
That was, as it's been in previous hearings, his explanation for why the project can begin construction without knowing where all of the money will come from. Most of the projected price tag is funding not yet identified, which was a source of contention at the Madera hearing -- with the debate largely centered on whether that's par for the course for big infrastructure projects, or a bad omen of a project that will fail.
"Would you build the first segment," Rep. Valadao asked CHSRA chair Richard, "if you knew there was never going to be any additional funding?"
Richard, who briefly hesitated in his answer, then simply said: "Yes. Yes, we would."
Train proponents argue that the design ensures each section will have value to the community in which it runs through. Critics, though, say those who are first in that position -- Madera County's agricultural community -- remain deeply skeptical of the overall impact, and of handing over the necessary parcels of land for construction to begin.
"Approximately 80 percent of the landowners affected along the initial construction segment are Farm Bureau members," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "To date, none of them have expressed a willing desire to sell."
Bullet train agency officials say agents are now in the Madera community negotiating to buy land, but they admit that a stalemate would result in a legal effort to take needed land by eminent domain.
That, however, could mean a delay in construction. Madera community officials say they've been told such a process could take some four months to resolve in court.
And farmers seem to be on the opposite side in some Valley communities from local merchants, who see the promise of new jobs and new residents seeking refuge from larger cities.
"Having a great, efficient transportation structure I think is paramount to make that happen," said Al Smith, president of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.
The two GOP congressmen on the panel raised many of their familiar concerns, from too little analysis of costs versus benefit to local worries about Amtrak stations being uprooted and service disrupted. Interestingly, they almost completely ignored recent questions about the initial construction contract -- a process which was changed to value lower cost more than technical expertise.
The winning bid, offered by a partnership of California companies, is expected to be formally awarded at the rail agency's meeting next week in Sacramento.