High-speed rail board approves plan, gets sued


Issue Date: December 21, 2016
By Kevin Hecteman

The California High Speed Rail Authority believes it has a viable Central Valley route and funding plan—but opponents disagree, and the project remains controversial in agricultural regions that would be affected by construction.

The CHSRA board unanimously approved funding plans last week that cover a Central Valley leg from Madera to Shafter and the San Francisco-San Jose leg, home to Caltrain, a longstanding commuter-rail operation. The plans are required for CHSRA to access money from Proposition 1A, the 2008 bond measure governing CHSRA activities.

But Stuart Flashman, an Oakland-based attorney representing project opponents, announced at the CHSRA board meeting that he's filing suit, claiming the plans don't comply with Proposition 1A. Flashman sued on behalf of Kings County, the San Mateo County town of Atherton, three nonprofit groups and four private citizens.

Flashman's lawsuit targets Assembly Bill1889, signed in September by Gov. Jerry Brown, which considers a rail segment "suitable and ready" if it can host high-speed trains now or after more improvements are made. The lawsuit seeks to have AB1889 declared an unconstitutional revision of Proposition 1A, and to force CHSRA back to the drawing board.

Dusty Ference, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau, said he wasn't pleased to hear of the funding plan's approval.

"Although we are discouraged by the approval of the plan, we are not surprised that the authority has done such an action," Ference said. "With the long history Kings County Farm Bureau has had with this project and the authority, we have come to understand that they cannot and will not abide by Prop. 1A, and have done everything within their powers to manipulate Prop. 1A and the Legislature."

The Kings County Farm Bureau is among parties to another lawsuit challenging the authority's alleged federal exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act. A ruling in favor of CHSRA is being appealed.

Ference said he's no fan of the plan.

"Unfortunately, the plan being proposed by the authority, and developed without any local and agricultural feedback, inflicts the highest impact to agriculture compared to other areas, because it does not follow any transportation corridor and meanders through our rural farming area without any regard to the businesses (farms) that it runs through," Ference said. "We have tried to work with the authority for over five years to seek to minimize the impacts. However, we have had no compromise from the authority, which leaves legal avenues as the only path forward."

Colleen Carlson, the Kings County counsel, said farmers and other citizens had come before the county board of supervisors, asking supervisors to "do everything they can to protect them."

"The high-speed rail will go approximately 30 miles—dissecting farmland—through Kings County," Carlson said. "Agriculture is the basis of our economy here, so it's devastating."

Kings County resident Aaron Fukuda, who co-chairs California Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability, said CHSRA continues to try to acquire right-of-way property via eminent domain.

"That process is going painfully slow for them, and (it's) a painful process for growers on our end," Fukuda said. He said some of the offers he's seen were as low as 25 percent of the going rate for agricultural land.

Annie Parker, a CHSRA information officer, said the authority has 996 parcels in its possession out of 1,614 needed for three construction areas in the Central Valley.

The rail authority said $7.813 billion will be needed for the Madera-Shafter segment. About $2 billion of that sum comes from the 2009 federal stimulus act; that money expires in late 2017 and requires a state match. In 2012, the Legislature allocated more than $7.5 billion to high-speed rail construction via Senate Bill 1029, but Proposition 1A requires several steps before that money can be spent.

Parker called the rail board's action significant "because it allows us to accelerate the work we are already doing to prepare for Silicon Valley to Central Valley high-speed rail service by 2025." She said the board vote allows the CHSRA to gain access to Proposition 1A bonds for work in the Central Valley and along the Bay Area peninsula.

She said the next step is for Jeff Morales, CEO of the authority, to finalize the plans and send them, along with reports from independent consultants, to the finance director and the chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. The CHSRA finance director will then have 60 days to approve the plans.

The new lawsuit centers on the definitions of "usable segment" and "suitable and ready" as used in Proposition 1A and AB 1889.

"Prop. 1A says that you identify a usable segment," Flashman said. "You do a funding plan for the usable segment that says, 'This is how much it's going to cost to build this usable segment, and that we have all of the funds that we need to build it,' and you tell where those funds are coming from. And then, what Prop. 1A says is that when the construction is finished, it will be suitable and ready for high-speed train operation."

But Flashman said AB 1889 illegally redefines "suitable and ready" to mean that the line will be suitable and ready immediately, or when future capital improvements are funded and constructed, "sometime off in the distant future."

In response, CHSRA spokesman Lisa Marie Alley wrote, "We are in the business of building high-speed rail in California, putting people to work and investing in our future. Our opponents are in the business of filing lawsuits, delaying the project and raising the cost of the program at the expense of the taxpayers."

Ference said he's not opposed to high-speed rail per se, but "if Kings County Farm Bureau were to support a particular project, it would have to respect the longstanding agricultural heritage and economy within Kings County and the farmers who have spent generations establishing a rich agricultural history."

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

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