As part of his stimulus package of 2009, President Obama included $8 billion to build high-speed railroads.
Up to $3.5 billion of the railway funds could go to California, which is about to begin an ambitious project linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Voters approved a $9 billion bond issue several years ago to begin construction, but the massive project is expected to cost anywhere from $68 to $100 billion. And with “Golden State” debt now exceeding $600 billion, additional funding sources remain to be seen.
Nevertheless, construction is slated to begin soon in California’s Central Valley – an area commonly known as “America’s Salad Bowl.” And as David Miller discovered last year, the “need for speed” could be the “end of the line” for some local farmers.
The idea of riding a train at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour has long been a dream of many around the world. While common in Europe, Japan, and China the idea has been slow to take root closer to home. Several states have attempted to spark regular high speed rail service but the likely contender to be first is California.
Tom Richards is Vice Chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board.
Tom Richards, California High-Speed Rail Authority Board: “When you think about what the alternatives are in California, the surface transportation system, the surface transportation system, the highway system, in California was designed years and years ago, decades ago, for a population that was somewhat less than 20 million people. …We have got a new assessment of current population growth that just came out earlier this week or last week which reduces what the anticipated population is by mid-century but it is still estimated at 50 million people.
When completed, the 800 miles of track will comprise the largest transportation infrastructure investment in state history. Traveling at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, passengers will travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just over two-and-a-half hours cutting travel time nearly 40 percent faster than by automobile.
While official High-Speed Rail Authority figures show the project costing $68.4 billion other estimates approach $100 billion. But even before funding was approved by California voters in 2008 many voices joined together against the plan.
Manuel Cunha is president of the Nisei Farmers League, a San Joaquin Valley-based farmer advocacy group with 1,100 members.
Manuel Cunhna, Nisei Farmers League: “So the league said, ‘you know what?’ We're going to fight this thing and the reason for fighting it as well as we have, we have a couple of our members, Japanese/ Americans, they're going to lose their grandparent's home…they're up in arms because this high speed rail is just going to tear through their home that they were born in by their parents.”
The initial phase of construction is slated to take place in the Central Valley of California between Merced and Fresno. Despite objections by most of the County governments in the area, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in mid-July last year allowing the California legislature to authorize the sale of $2.7 billion worth of construction bonds. The money will be matched by $3.3 billion in Federal funds allowing for the first 130-mile section of track to be laid. The steel rails will cut through a portion of the Valley’s 6 million acres of crop land which produces a good share of the nation’s winter fruits and vegetables.
The original plan was to create an independent path connecting the major urban centers of California. But in order to reduce the price tag by nearly $30 billion a new route was created combining dedicated roadbed and existing right-of-way.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates 320 billion fewer vehicle miles will be traveled over the 40 years following completion of the project in 2028. Officials with the Golden State’s rail board predict 12 billion fewer pounds of greenhouse gasses will be produced and 237 million gallons of auto fuel will be saved annually. Nearly 120 million people are expected to take advantage of the faster service by 2030.
The High-Speed Rail Authority says at least 600,000 construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs will have been created when the entire route is completed in 15 years. Officials say it will help revitalize communities along the line but Cunha believes the project will be devastating to local farmers.
Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League: “So, the jobs in my industry are going to be huge to loss, and they are saying well, we're going to put those people to work. No, you're not. Don't - don't fool me because you are talking about people operating major big equipments which is tied to the unions and tied to other issues and those aren't going to be those jobs that are around here. They are going to come from other states that have economic problems. And they could even come from those countries that we're going to buy the steel from or the train from. We don’t make the trains around here and we don't make any steel around here. So, all of these together are going to be controlled by a very small group of people. But we're going to lose all the jobs that we have here.”
Thousands of acres of private property will have to be purchased or acquired in order to complete the massive transportation project. The State of California will need 4,500 acres alone to finish the Central Valley portion.
Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League: “I may have to ask two neighbors to the west of me if I could go through their land to go farm my other piece of ground whereas before I farmed it all in one spot.”
Tom Richards, California High-Speed Rail Authority Board: “…we have to mitigate those - implications or impacts. Part of what we believe works is the same thing that has worked in Europe and what has worked in Europe is where you have land swaps. So, you may have a farmer that’s being impacted over here and we understand that. But there is an opportunity perhaps to swap that piece of property that has been affected with the property owner to the other side of that.”
Cunha and the Nisei Farmers League are opting not to take legal action, but others are. Three lawsuits have been filed by various groups to stop construction of the Central Valley project. Initial arguments are slated to begin in April. Last month, however, a Sacramento Superior Court judge denied a request to block work on the stretch between Merced and Fresno. Officials with the High-Speed Rail Authority have stated they plan to seek common ground with each piece of litigation but refused to comment on any pending cases.
Legal wrangling aside, the Central Valley project is proceeding at high-speed. Bids have been accepted for a 30-mile section of track between Madera and Fresno and construction contracts are expected to be awarded in June.
For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.