Controversial High-Speed Rail Project Negatively Affecting California Agriculture, Lawyer Says

September 26, 2019 Updated: October 2, 2019

The California high-speed bullet train is disrupting farming operations in one of the most productive agricultural areas of the country, according to a lawyer representing multiple clients in the San Joaquin Valley.

“It’s going right through the middle of dozens and dozens of farms,” Mark Wasser, a Sacramento attorney, told The Epoch Times, creating a “massive disruption” for local residents.

The state’s high-speed rail has been one of the most hotly debated projects in recent memory. The California Speed Rail Authority’s construction plans have been constantly revised in order to account for delays, staggering cost increases, litigation, and additional problems related to mismanagement of land purchases.

“The high speed railroad goes through every farm in the San Joaquin Valley at an angle, which means it cuts squares and rectangles into trapezoids and triangles … with acute and obtuse turns in the middle of their fields,” Wasser said.

“Then you have irrigation pipes and you have wells and you have the fact that it’s a closed right of way. So if you have a 40-acre orchard and they go through the middle of it … some farmer’s going to have to drive eight miles to cross a 120-foot right of way because they have to go down to the next county road,” he said.

In addition, many farmers use airplanes for pesticide application or planting seeds, said Wasser. However, the high-speed rail project has become a major obstruction through the middle of many fields.

“[This] means a crop-duster can’t fly over the field anymore. You can’t do aerial application, which means you’ve got to switch to ground rigs. Ground rigs not are not cost effective because the field is no longer square, it’s a triangle — the rows are different lengths. It goes on and on. It’s a massive, massive disruption,” he said.

The publicly-funded rail system was originally intended to allow passengers to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about two hours and 40 minutes. Future plans included extending the railway to San Diego and Sacramento.

However, the project has met major setbacks. During his State of the State address last February, Gov. Gavin Newsom explained that “the current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long.”

Newsom’s proposed solution was to significantly shorten the planned path of the high-speed rail by focusing on a shorter inland route from Merced to Bakersfield in the Central Valley. The expected year of completion for this portion of the train is 2028 — the same year that the Los Angeles to San Francisco route was originally supposed to reach completion.

Jeff John Roberts, a commentator for Fortune, interpreted these ongoing alterations to the initial plan as confirmation of Californians’ worst fears about the project, predicting that “this country won’t experience modern rail travel for another generation — if ever.”

The rather grim outlook was echoed by some of the employees who are closest to the project, who said miscalculations of the land needed for the project has resulted in “gut-wrenching delays,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I am going to ride this train, but I am afraid it is going to be my ashes in an urn,” a middle manager told the newspaper. “I told my kids to take my ashes on the bullet train.”

The rail authority, which began purchasing land seven years ago, has acquired some 466 acres of land and faces the challenge of procuring as many as 468 more parcels for the purpose of utility relocations. In order to secure a route for the train, electrical wiring, water mains, sewers, communication cables, and gas pipes will have to be restructured, removed or relocated.

The Los Angeles Times reported that thus far, the project “has yet to secure roughly one-sixth of the 1,859 parcels it needs for the 119 miles between Madera and Wasco.”

Another manager told the news outlet: “The authority is as broken as it ever has been. The top officials just bark orders, but nobody follows orders here. Nothing is working.”

The rapidly ballooning price tag has skyrocketed over the past decade from the proposed $33.6 billion in 2008 to as much as $98.1 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

A $2.5-billion federal grant that the rail authority has already spent is currently being audited by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general. Last May, President Trump authorized the cancelation of a $929-million grant allotted for construction in the Central Valley.

“California has abandoned its original vision of a high-speed passenger rail service connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, which was essential to its applications for FRA grant funding,” the Federal Railroad Administration said in a statement accompanying a 25-page letter explaining its decision to terminate the grant.

The letter also cited the state’s failure to predict reasonable schedules, prove it can meet established deadlines, and report noteworthy achievements in a timely manner.

Wasser claims the original proposed route for the high-speed train was not sufficiently studied on the ground, causing unexpected issues to continuously arise.

“The high-speed rail authority is spending lots and lots of money to try to mitigate the impacts of its project,” Wasser said. “That’s one reason why it’s over budget and behind schedule. They did not know what they were getting into.”

Ron Tutor, chief executive of one of the leading contracting team for construction in Fresno and Madera, estimated that the rail authority is responsible for causing some 48 delays to his progress with the project, according to the Los Angeles Times. He said these hinderances could result in his initial $1-billion contract to double. Even so, Tutor said he was “encouraged by recent meeting with state officials and hopes to soon have all of the land needed for his work.

Meanwhile, the Build High-Speed Rail California website states “incredible progress continues to be made at the active construction sites for high-speed rail, with two projects nearing completion.”