Calif. bullet train land buys irk locals in Central Valley
FRESNO, Calif. — Trucks loaded with tomatoes, milk and almonds clog the two main highways that bisect California's farm heartland, carrying goods to millions along the Pacific Coast and beyond. This dusty stretch of land is the starting point for one of the most expensive U.S. public infrastructure projects: a $68 billion high-speed rail system that would span the state, linking the people of America's salad bowl to more jobs, opportunity and buyers.
Five years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the idea of bringing a bullet train to the most populous state. It would be America's first high-speed rail system, sold to the public as a way to improve access to good-paying jobs, cut pollution from smog-filled roadways and reduce time wasted by sitting in traffic while providing an alternative to high fuel prices.
Now engineering work has finally begun on the first 30-mile segment of track in Fresno, a city of a half-million people with soaring unemployment and a withering downtown core littered with abandoned factories and shuttered stores.
‘There goes the farm'
Rail is meant to help Fresno, with construction jobs now and improved access to economic opportunity once the project is finished. But the region that could benefit most from the project is also where opposition to it has grown most fierce.
“I just wish it would go away, this high-speed rail. I just wish it would go away,” says Gary Lanfranco, whose restaurant in downtown Fresno is slated to be demolished to make way for rerouted traffic.
Such sentiments can be heard throughout the Central Valley, where roads are dotted with signs such as: “HERE COMES HIGH SPEED RAIL There goes the farm.” Growers complain of misplaced priorities, and residents wonder if their tax money is being squandered.
Aaron Fukuda, a civil engineer whose house in the dairy town of Hanford lies directly in one of the possible train routes, says: “People are worn out, tired, frustrated.”
Voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds to start construction on an 800-mile rail line to ferry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, compared with 6 hours by car now during good traffic. Since then, the housing market collapsed, multibillion-dollar budget deficits followed, and the price tag has fluctuated wildly — from $45 billion in 2008 to more than $100 billion in 2011 and now $68 billion.
The real thing?
Political and financial compromises led officials to scale back plans that now mean trains will be forced to slow down and share tracks in major cities, leading critics to question whether it will truly be the 220-mph “high-speed rail” voters were promised.
The high-speed rail business plan says trains will run between the greater Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay area by 2029. But construction has been postponed repeatedly, and a court victory this summer by opponents threatens further delays; a Sacramento County Superior Court judge said the state rail authority's plan goes against the promise made to voters to identify all the funding for the first segment before starting construction.
Even the former chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Quentin Kopp, has turned against the project, saying in court papers that it “is no longer a genuine high-speed rail system.”
In the Central Valley, there is intense distrust of the authority, which has started buying up property, land and businesses, some of which have been in families for generations.
Rail officials acknowledge that the agency hasn't always communicated with those most affected by the project, and part of their work in the Central Valley is strictly public relations.
“Frankly, it set us back, because we, in effect, created questions and even opposition by just failing to give people answers,” says Jeff Morales, the authority's chief executive officer since 2012.
For supporters, high-speed rail is the solution to transportation needs, when the state's jammed, rutted highways and busy airports won't be enough for a population expected to hit 46 million by 2035.
It will help move the Central Valley beyond the dominant low-wage agriculture sector, Morales says.
“By connecting Fresno, Bakersfield and the other cities of the Central Valley to Los Angeles and San Francisco ... it just creates more opportunities for people,” he says. “It creates a whole different sort of economy that'll just raise the Central Valley.”