Farmers voice concerns over high-speed rail line project


Issue Date: January 27, 2010
Christine Souza

As the California High-Speed Rail Authority moves forward with plans to construct an 800-mile high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, Central Valley growers within the Merced to Fresno segment of the project are calling for routes with the least impact to agriculture.

“With two of the suggested routes for the high-speed rail project from Merced to Fresno, you are talking about carving up 25 miles of our property diagonally. It goes through two houses on the ranch, an almond orchard and a field that has an existing pipeline, which we would have to replace,” said diversified farmer Kole Upton, who farms with his family in Madera and Merced counties. “My dad started this ranch with 100 acres. Many folks have no idea of the value of farmland and how emotional it is for someone who has lived on the land their whole life and that has been in their family. They are talking about coming through and destroying it.”

California voters approved a high-speed rail project in November 2008 with the passage of Proposition 1A that authorized $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds to fund the first phase of a planned multiphase high-speed rail network.

With the project costing an estimated $42.6 billion, the High-Speed Rail Authority—which is assigned the task of completing final planning, design and environmental efforts—has applied for $4.7 billion in federal stimulus dollars. To be eligible, the authority must be ready to begin construction by 2012. The project would be funded through public and private money, including federal and state funds and bonds. Construction efforts are projected to begin as soon as 2011.

An estimated 300 miles of the project is expected to go through the Central Valley—one of the most productive farming regions in the world.

Upton and his fellow Farm Bureau members in Madera and Merced counties have expressed support for a route that would result in the fewest impacts to farmland and that currently is Alignment 2 or A-2, which runs along the existing transportation corridor of Highway 99 and the Union Pacific Railroad.

“A-2 is the least disruptive for everybody. It follows existing corridors and life goes on. No use making this more complicated than it is,” Upton said. “Nobody is against improving society and improving mass transit, but you don’t have to destroy an existing economic engine in order to do that.”

Central Valley farmers are especially concerned about Alignment 3, which slices across farmland from Merced to Fresno on the western side of Highway 99, with Madera County suffering the greatest agricultural impacts.

“We have many farmers in the path of the A-3, which goes diagonally through farm parcels and renders them unfarmable in some areas,” said Julia Berry, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. “We are concerned about what having a train come through every 15 minutes will mean for farmers. What does vibration do to underground irrigation pipes? And what about the crossings? They say there will be a crossing every few miles so if you farm on both sides, it is like creating another highway that we have to drive two miles to get around.”

The proposed A-1 route, which runs along the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line east of Highway 99 in Madera County, was taken off of the table and a hybrid of that alignment, known as A-4, joins the A-2 alignment near Chowchilla. A-4 remains one of the routes under consideration by the High-Speed Rail Authority and would impact farmland.

Carrie Bowen, High-Speed Rail Authority regional director for Central California, said the reason A-3 and A-4 remain as options for the project is due to early support by Madera County, the city of Madera and the city of Chowchilla.

“In Fresno County, there was a western alignment similar to A-3 and the city and the county opposed it immediately. So with that and some other information, it is not being recommended to go forward,” Bowen said.

The Madera County Board of Supervisors initially came out in support of A-3 and A-4, and expressed opposition to A-2. After discussion with the county Farm Bureau, the board of supervisors changed its position this month and passed a resolution recommending that the authority support routes using existing transportation corridors.

“We want the High-Speed Rail Authority to do what they said they’d do and go through existing transportation corridors through the cities, but properly mitigate the cities’ concerns. We’re for that,” Upton said.

Although the A-2 route would impact his property, Madera County Farm Bureau President Jim Erickson supports the use of the existing transportation corridor for the rail project, expected to reach speeds of 220 miles per hour.

“The A-2 will cut through the edge of our property, but I would rather have it on me than cut through ranches making it just impossible for them to farm,” said Erickson, who farms almonds and olives and operates a custom spraying and farm management business with his father and two sons.

Based on opposition to A-3 from the public, elected officials and others in Madera County, the authority asked its staff to conduct economic impact studies on what the route would mean for the agricultural community and local businesses, which are expected to be completed in the next month. At that point, Bowen said, the authority will reassess.

The Merced County Farm Bureau is opposed to routes A-3 and A-4, which cut across county farmland.

“I’ve been a big advocate of the A-2 route and am opposed to the A-3 and A-4 routes because they will have some impact to my operation,” said Merced County Farm Bureau first vice president Jeff Marchini.

Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said its board has not yet taken an official position; the majority of the route through Fresno follows an existing transportation corridor.

“My plan as a regional director is to work with the community, and try to come to some compromises that everybody can live with,” Bowen added. “The board does not vote until they vote to certify the draft environmental document for circulation, which will be in the fall of 2010.”

The high-speed rail project also includes planning for a heavy maintenance facility, expected to go somewhere in the Central Valley. The authority announced last week that it had received 15 proposals from local governments, agencies and private companies interested in welcoming heavy and other maintenance facilities in their counties and cities. Bowen said of the proposals received, 12 were for locations between Merced and Fresno.

“The high-speed rail project is a promising infrastructure project for the state of California, but its prime beneficiaries are not California’s ranchers and farmers,” said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division. “The primary impacts will be to agricultural areas as the project traverses through some of California’s finest and most productive farmland. Therefore, Farm Bureau’s prime concerns surround the conversion of farmland, as well as related impacts to agricultural operations, and we’ll be looking to the state to avoid and mitigate those impacts.”

For more information about the California High-Speed Rail project, go to www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov. To view the alignment alternatives for the Merced to Fresno section featured on Page 18, go to www.maderafb.com and look for the high-speed rail information.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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