Ranchers and farmers resist high-speed train in California

California’s proposed construction of a controversial, steeply expensive high-speed rail system through the state’s agriculturally abundant San Joaquin Valley is not being welcomed with enthusiasm by ranchers and farmers whose operations and property could be adversely impacted by the “bullet train.”

State officials recently spiked the cost estimate of the project’s first phase underway in the Central Valley by 35 percent to $10.6 billion, boosting the train’s entire cost from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the valley to $67 billion. California voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds for the project, which has been afflicted by cost overruns and delays.

Federal funding and revenue from California’s cap-and-trade program also will be used. In 2010, the Obama White House announced the federal government would provide $2.25 billion for the high-speed rail. It awarded another $4 billion in funding during 2010 and 2011.

The latest $2.8 billion cost hike is for a 119-mile stretch in the Central Valley, which is under construction, but difficulty acquiring track rights-of-way and a need to build more parallel barriers have increased expenses for the first phase. Originally, it was estimated the entire project would cost $40 billion.

It’s projected that the bullet train will run from San Francisco to L.A. and Anaheim in three hours by 2029. Afterward, it ultimately would extend from Sacramento to San Diego. Its maximum speed would be 220 miles per hour, but it would average 125 mph from San Francisco to San Jose and 90 mph from L.A. to Anaheim. Total length of trackage would be 800 miles with 24 proposed boarding stations along the way.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is in charge of overseeing the bullet train’s success. Its board of governors voted in December 2010 to begin construction on the system’s first section from Madera to Fresno. In July 2012, the California Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approved the system’s construction. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in January 2015 at Fresno to mark the start of sustained construction activities.

Lawmakers have approved an official audit of the ambitious high-speed rail project to understand whether the infrastructure undertaking can be completed on time and without continuous dramatic cost increases. The audit would evaluate its economic benefit to communities and whether it will meet sustainability goals to help reduce car and truck fuel emissions.

The state transportation agency is expected to release a highly anticipated biennial business plan this month or in March, which could highlight a major shift in costs or the project’s timeline. In October, it approved a $30 million contract with DB Engineering & Consulting USA, an American subsidiary of a German rail giant, to design and operate the train from the Central Valley to the Silicon Valley in its early stages.

Its proponents argue California needs a quicker, cleaner form of transportation up and down the state, noting it has created 1,500 construction jobs at 17 sites in the Central Valley, but Republicans and rail critics have long countered it’s a huge waste of state money.

In 2015, Farm Bureaus in Madera and Merced counties filed legal briefs to ensure the CHSRA complies with the California Environmental Quality Act with regard to the environmental effects of constructing and operating the bullet train system. In 2012, they sued the rail authority over its approval of a Merced-Fresno route. They later settled the matter before reaching trial, withdrawing opposition.

One executive director said the project already is having an impact on agriculture in the two respective counties, potentially bifurcating dozens of parcels, severing irrigation systems and permanently closing county roads.

Chris Scheuring, managing counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said while the Farm Bureau has expressed reservations, it has not taken any hard advocacy stance in opposing the high-speed rail system. However, it does have real concerns from a number of perspectives—cost, environmental impacts, rights-of-way cutting through Central Valley farm land, growth inducing impact, high speed stations, etc.

 “It continues to be a very expensive proposition. A lot of folks are not confident it will ever come to fruition,” Scheuring told WLJ. “Not many farmers and ranchers are going to count themselves among the passengers. It chiefly will be urban folks going from one urban center to another. … I don’t see agriculture seeing itself as a beneficiary of high-speed rail.”

It’s been estimated the rail line could directly impact 3,000 acres, but Scheuring said the indirect impacts could be greater. In addition to parcels being bisected by the rails, there are other concerns, including whether pesticides could be applied on farm land near the tracks and additional regulations would be imposed.

“It’s my sense they are not breaking a lot of ground yet. It’s a huge undertaking,” Scheuring said, noting some consider it a visionary legacy project for Brown, “but it’s not going to be built on his watch.”

In his 16th and final State of the State address on Jan. 25, Brown spent much of it urging continued support for the high-speed passenger train project, noting 11 other countries have bullet trains. The section between San Jose and San Francisco is financed and ready to proceed, he said.

“Yes, it costs lots of money, but it is still cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports and building new freeways to meet the growing demand. It will be fast, quiet and powered by renewable electricity and last for a hundred years,” he said.

 “Difficulties challenge us, but they can’t discourage or stop us. Whether it’s roads or trains or dams or renewable energy installations or zero emission cars, California is setting the pace for America. Yes, there are critics, there are lawsuits and there are countless obstacles, but California was built on dreams and perseverance, and the bolder path is still our way forward.”

While supportive of efficient mass transportation, most Farm Bureau members have not asked their organization to support this particular high-speed rail project, but are mostly opposed to it with sentiment ranging from neutral to negative, Scheuring said. “It does not seem sound to us.”

There are 16 dairies between Fresno and Bakersfield that lie in the bullet train’s path that will slice through the San Joaquin Valley—a region that boasts the bulk of California’s milk and crop production. Some dairy operators fear the high-speed rail will cut access to their fields, disrupt underground irrigation and harm wastewater systems.

The Machado and Monteiro families farm near Hanford, CA, in Kings County where milk is the No. 1 farm commodity and 13 of 16 dairies are positioned. Their dairies and two other dairies are home to 19,700 cows in a three-mile radius.

Joe Machado, who milks 800 cows at his third generation dairy and farms 700 acres of feed crops, told AgWeb.com the new rail system could cost him $1.87 million in annual gross revenues.

While the route will not level any buildings, it will destroy his operation’s whole infrastructure, he said, requiring him to install three new irrigation wells and two lift pumps. He also will need to build a new ditch for surface water transport.

The bullet train will skirt towns and cities, but run right through farm land. Its tracks will be fenced off with no way to cross except for overpasses. Machado said its route will no longer track along existing transportation corridors as first envisioned. Harvesters, other field equipment and milk trucks will be impeded by road closures.

Many area farmers impacted by the high-speed rail system are worried they are being railroaded by state officials and want original promises made about the bullet train kept on track. – Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent

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