In SJ Valley, high-speed rail concerns linger

Issue Date: February 20, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman

As Mark Twain might have said, reports of the death of the California high-speed rail project have been greatly exaggerated--and in the San Joaquin Valley, farmers continue to face the impacts of the line's construction.

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said completing the entire San Francisco-to-Los Angeles project as currently envisioned "would cost too much and take too long." He said he wants to focus on completing the Merced-to-Bakersfield segment, already under construction.

In the immediate aftermath of the speech, several media reports spoke of Newsom "pulling the plug" on the project, because he said that right now, "there simply isn't a path" for the train to connect to Sacramento, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

But in the San Joaquin Valley, farmers from Merced to Kern counties still stand to lose land and livelihoods to bullet-train right of way.

"Unfortunately, nothing changes," said Dusty Ference, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. "High-speed rail construction broke ground several months ago here in Kings County. The rail's going to continue construction."

How the governor's plans play out in the state Legislature remains unclear, according to Robert Spiegel, a policy specialist on transportation issues for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"From a legislative perspective, ongoing funding will be an interesting discussion this year. Does the Legislature continue to appropriate a significant amount of cap-and-trade money to the project? Will ridership be able to cover the costs of ongoing operations? Is the state prepared to backfill those losses? There are more questions than answers on both the short-term and long-term implications," Spiegel said.

Funding for wildfire prevention, forest management and water infrastructure are sure to figure into the debate, he added.

There's also the $3.5 billion in federal money allocated by Congress for the rail project, which Spiegel called "a significant carrot."

"The funding's still there—the $3.5 billion from the feds; they have to show something or pay that back," he said. "It is a much smaller project, and one that I don't believe in any way fulfills the vision that California voters went to the polls over and supported more than a decade ago."

Proposition 1A, approved by voters in November 2008, authorized nearly $10 billion in bonds to help the California High-Speed Rail Authority construct the system. The proposition spoke of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles in a running time of two hours, 40 minutes.

"Even though the citizens of California, through the ballot initiative, expected high-speed rail to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in a little over two and a half hours, I think there's an interesting constitutional dilemma now associated to it," Spiegel said.

Christina Beckstead, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said she wonders what the revised rail plan might mean for a spot called the Central Valley Wye, a junction in Madera and Merced counties intended to connect the main Central Valley leg to eventual lines serving San Jose and Sacramento.

In January 2017, the CHSRA identified an alignment for a preferred route following Highway 152 from west to east, with the Sacramento line splitting off at Road 11. At the time, the rail authority reported this alignment would take 2,144 acres of farmland deemed Important Farmland under the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program, and affect 31 agricultural operations.

"If the wye goes away, it would be positive for the growers that are being impacted out there," Beckstead said, noting that at least one farmer would be put out of business entirely due to the alignment. She also said one disadvantaged community in the area of the wye was supposed to benefit.

Beckstead said the governor's statement about high-speed rail left her with more questions than answers.

"Now, if the wye isn't there, does that kill everything? Or is it just put on hold until they decide to do whatever else they're going to do later on down the line? I don't know," Beckstead said.

Farmers in her county have different infrastructure priorities, she added.

"I have growers that were making public comments the other day, saying, 'No, we don't need this. We needed that money to do other things, like water infrastructure,'" she said.

Ference said he foresees an inevitable build-out of the system—and a dearth of ticket sales.

"It doesn't make sense to many of us down here," Ference said, "Who's going to ride the thing? But we're still going to have it in our neighborhood."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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