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 the Vice Chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority Board.
Tom Richards, California High Speed Rail Authority Board: “This system is going to service and be able to touch in a direct sort of way in terms of providing transportation some 80 percent of that population. 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 38 million. 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…The United States took U.S. Citizens, Japanese/Americans and put them in camps, relocation centers, as they said to protect them. …their grandkids today that are 40 years old, 50 years old, 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 that lost their home and got it back.”
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 authorizing 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.
Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League: ”This high speed rail is going to cut down the normal flow of traffic from east to west in this basin. Every mile we would have roads to go back and forth. Now that is going to go to every ten miles. So, we're going to cut off major thoroughfares and they're going to go down other side roads and then find yourself a massive overpass to come back over and then go back again. So, we're going to have more travel time from the standpoint of people going to work, school buses, definitely a great concern for people's safety.”
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 authority 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 just 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. I went up and down the roads.”
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 is 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.”
While Cunha and the Nisei Farmers League say they won’t pursue and legal action for now, three law suits have been filed by various groups to stop construction of the Central Valley project. 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 the pending cases.
And questions remain over how the massive project will be funder. To date, allocated State and Federal funds amount to less than 10 percent of the project’s total cost.
Nevertheless, the Central Valley project is proceeding at full-speed. Requests by California’s High Speed Rail Authority for bids on the four-year long undertaking have already been made and construction is expected to begin in next Spring.
For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.