High-speed rail: Route decision disappoints affected farmers
By Christine Souza
The preferred route for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the proposed high-speed rail system includes 65 miles of track. Download PDF
Photo/ Provided by the California High-Speed Rail Authority
Expressing disappointment, landowners in at least one county say they're considering their options in response to the final, preferred route for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the proposed California high-speed rail system.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority released final environmental documents last week that lock in that preferred route, part of a proposed 800-mile system connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Madera County Farm Bureau Executive Director Anja Raudabaugh said she was disappointed by the authority's final version of the documents, known as the Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement.
"The final EIR is not really about dramatic changes to the project as much as it is trying to respond to comments on the project. They didn't propose any changes per se, but just proposed additional mitigation measures. But the route would be the same," Raudabaugh said. "We really wish they would go back to the drawing board with the route in Madera County."
The high-speed rail authority's preferred route from Merced to Fresno would impact at least 1,200 to 1,500 acres of prime and important farmland, Raudabaugh said, estimating that the agricultural production that stands to be lost could be valued between $30 million and $50 million. Analysts described the acreage figure as a fraction of the project's total, potential impact on agricultural land resources.
Jeff Abercrombie, High-Speed Rail Authority area program manager for the Central Valley, said the final EIR/EIS will be heard before the authority board on May 2 and 3, when the Federal Railroad Administration is scheduled to adopt the document in the form of a record of decision.
Once that happens, Raudabaugh said, "that opens things up for potential litigation by claimants that do not feel that any of their concerns were addressed. Anybody that desires to sue has to wait until that (record of decision) is adopted."
"The authority will adopt the record of decision unless they are overwhelmingly persuaded by public comments at that hearing, which has not been their track record," Raudabaugh said.
Farm Bureau supports "comprehensive environmental review" for high-speed rail, California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Chris Scheuring said, "and we believe the High-Speed Rail Authority should avoid or fully mitigate for impacts to farmland and other agricultural resources."
A major decision based on public comments in December was the selection of a "hybrid" route—a north-south alignment that runs along parts of the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The authority said it chose this as the preferred route between Merced and Fresno because it considered the hybrid route the most cost-effective with the least environmental impact and the fewest construction issues.
On whether the final EIR/EIS addresses concerns by farmers about the impact of the rail system, Raudabaugh said she believed the authority tried to do so with respect to bisecting farms, and noted that underground facilities would be installed for irrigation and pipes.
"They did try, but one of the greatest concerns is the taking of the land, and the authority essentially indicates in this document that they will continue to take the land at market value," Raudabaugh said. "If they wanted to change anything, they would have to start over and do a recirculation of the draft EIR, which is something that we suggested to them several months ago."
Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said the high-speed rail would follow existing tracks in southern Fresno County, then deviate and make a diagonal cut through farmland.
"What is bad is when it slices and dices the agricultural land there," Jacobsen said. "I would like for the high-speed rail to follow the existing transportation corridors and minimize farmland lost."
Merced County Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said she was still reviewing the final environmental documents and had "more questions than answers."
"We do know that agricultural properties are going to be dramatically impacted," she said.
The release of the final environmental report came at the end of a week that saw other developments in the debate over the system's future: The state Legislative Analyst's Office issued a report urging the Legislature to reject funding for high-speed rail until more details about its funding become available, a day before two legislative committees held hearings to consider authorizing bond funds for the project. Neither committee took action last week.
To view the authority's final environmental document, go to www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.