High-speed rail project proceeds; lawsuit continues

Issue Date: February 17, 2016
By Christine Souza

As the California High-Speed Rail Authority continues with construction work and property acquisition in the San Joaquin Valley, a lawsuit against the project entered a new phase in Sacramento.

Kings County farmer John Tos, landowner Aaron Fukuda and representatives from Kings County appeared in Sacramento County Superior Court last week for the second phase of a lawsuit brought against the authority, which is responsible for planning, design, construction and operation of the statewide high-speed train system.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny will decide whether the project complies with requirements under Proposition 1A, the statewide high-speed rail initiative approved in 2008.

Both the plaintiffs' attorney and the state addressed questions posed by Kenny, including:

  • Whether a blended system—high-speed trains would share tracks with Caltrain commuter trains in San Francisco—blocks the authority from using Proposition 1A bond funds;
  • Whether a blended system can comply with requirements for trip times and train frequency;
  • How much flexibility the authority has in interpreting the requirements that the train be economically viable.

Plaintiffs claim the state is not fulfilling promises it made to voters under Proposition 1A, challenge the financial viability of the project and say its design will not meet the mandated 2-hour, 40-minute travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles promised to voters. In addition, they say a blended system, in which high-speed rail trains would share tracks with Caltrain, violates the initiative.

"This is about more than whether the current high-speed rail project moves forward, and even more than whether billions of dollars of state and federal money get wasted on a project that will ultimately fail and be seen as an example of government gone wrong wasting scarce public resources," said Stuart Flashman, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. "This is about whether California's voters can trust what they read on an election ballot and whether the government can promise one thing and then engage in a 'bait and switch' on the voters."

Fukuda, who co-chairs Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability, said the contract between the state and its voters is not being upheld.

"Is it a dedicated, high-speed rail system that the voters thought they were getting? That is at the heart of the case: whether the judge believes that a blended system does not comply with Prop. 1A," he said.

Kenny took the matter under advisement.

"In the interim," Flashman said, "unless an injunction is put in place and kept in place by the appellate court, many more farmers, businesses and homeowners are likely to be threatened with having their properties taken. Those at risk need to talk to their attorneys about getting the eminent-domain proceedings stayed until this case is finally decided."

During the first phase of the case, the court found that the authority's Central Valley project violated Proposition 1A, but an appeals court neutralized that decision, ruling the plaintiffs did not have a remedy at that stage of the process.

Meanwhile, construction continues between Merced and Fresno, including a trench south of Highway 180, an underground passage under that highway, and a viaduct over Highway 99 in Fresno County. In Madera County, construction of a Fresno River viaduct is happening and plans are in place for realignment of Highway 99.

Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, described activity on two sections of the rail that come together near the county Farm Bureau office in the city of Fresno.

"I'm at ground zero here. It's all taking place literally two minutes from the office; that is where they are demolishing buildings. Things are moving quickly," Jacobsen said. "A lot of buildings are coming down and there are still active land transactions going on to secure the properties for the line."

Yet to be finalized is the path of a Central Valley "wye" near Chowchilla that will serve as the interchange for trains traveling to San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno and Los Angeles.

Merced County Farm Bureau executive director Breanne Ramos said the wye "has always been an issue; it's just a matter of which way they are going to go."

At the Madera County Farm Bureau, Executive Director Christina Beckstead said the county Farm Bureau has not taken a position on the wye "because our folks will be affected by all routes."

The high-speed rail authority is preparing technical reports and documentation for the alignments under consideration for the wye, authority spokesperson Toni Tinoco said.

"We plan on releasing a draft document by fall of this year, and our goal is to select a final alignment by fall 2017," Tinoco said. "Each route has its own pros and cons, and right now we're trying to see which is the least impactful to agriculture and the community."

Construction in the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section will extend in excess of 60 miles and for this stretch, Tinoco said, the authority needs 271 agricultural parcels, 148 of which have already been purchased.

Fukuda accused the authority of "generally low-balling agricultural properties and downplaying the importance of those by offering less than anticipated values."

With construction happening in the Central Valley first, Tinoco said, "As far as the other areas going north and going south, we are holding a lot of community meetings and putting the word out that the train will eventually come their way."

(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.