Crunching through fallen leaves in a sprawling walnut grove, John Tos frets about the high-speed railroad headed his way.
He gets why many in this part of the Central Valley are excited about a construction project that could mean tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity. But a newly selected route cleaves through prime cropland his family has farmed for 94 years. Fields would be split, complex irrigation systems disrupted and operations complicated, says the grower with a graying Abe Lincoln beard.
“Ag and this train don’t get along at all,” he says.
Down the road at the Kings County job center, Zach Godinho is at the computer looking for work. Unemployment is a chronic problem in this region, running 30% to 40% higher than the state average. “It’s like a deflated balloon,” says the 29-year-old former grocery cashier and part-time high school tutor, who’s been searching for full-time work for three months. If a bullet train can bring jobs, he says, “I’m all for it.”
Jump-starting a decades-old dream of a vast statewide bullet train network was supposed to be relatively easy in California’s rural heartland, given widespread official support and largely open, flat terrain. It would not only bring federally funded construction jobs, it would eventually draw the region closer to the sights and services of distant state population centers.
But with rail officials looking to turn dirt here within two years on the first $5.5 billion of track, they are encountering the same sort of clashing demands that have made selecting routes through Los Angeles and the Bay Area potential quagmires.
Some Central Valley communities are lobbying to steer the route around their towns, citing noise, vibration, aesthetics and loss of existing businesses. “We are rural Americana,” says Ron Hoggard, city manager of Corcoran, which has pumped millions into revitalizing its business district. “What we don’t want is an elevated graffiti mural running through town.”
The prospect of shifting to agricultural land, however, is raising the ire of influential growers and their allies. Some hint at legal action.
“You’re basically naming ag land as the path of least resistance,” says Diana Peck, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. “We are not going to stand for that.”
Voices of opposition
For months, the high-speed rail debate has swirled around the county seat of Hanford, a historic railroad town about 30 miles south of Fresno. The Southern Pacific Railway put Hanford on the map 123 years ago. Moaning train horns still drift across the city day and night from the downtown tracks. And a state landmark here commemorates an 1880 shootout involving a land dispute between the railroad and local ranchers.
The new era of rail development is stirring passions again. After bullet train surveyors started asking to scope out farmland earlier this year, objections from growers intensified.
Trying to quell the unrest, the California High-Speed Rail Authority drafted alternative routes that would follow the existing tracks through Hanford. That upset the City Council, which said the plans were too disruptive in a downtown that promotes tours of its carefully preserved century-old buildings. At one point, Hanford threatened to bar rail representatives from stepping on city property. “We were very much against that” route, says City Manager Hilary M. Straus.
By September, the only option left bowed east of Hanford into the nut and fruit groves Tos and his neighbors farm. Running a finger along an aerial map at his office, Tos shows how ground-level tracks and elevated viaducts would arc through squared-off farm fields at odd angles. “We’ve got all these parcels just the way we want them,” he says. “When you go diagonally through there, it just destroys” them.
Farm groups up and down the Valley are voicing similar complaints. Some of their allies, including the Kings County Board of Supervisors, have called for the train to stick to established routes, notably Highway 99. But that option was ruled out because of high construction costs and uncertainty about cooperation from Union Pacific, which controls tracks near the road.
One problem for farmers, says Manuel Cunha, president of the 1,100-member Nisei Farmers League, is that rail officials are racing to start construction so they can secure billions in federal stimulus cash. But farmers are still in the dark about what would happen to them, he said.
Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall says the agency is listening. “All these things are being addressed” in environmental reviews, she says. Decisions on route refinements and some city bypass options will be made over the coming year. Ultimately, the train will need to clear a 100- to 120-foot path or about 12 acres per mile through agricultural areas, she says. Landowners would be “entitled to proper compensation” for acreage taken, she notes.
Cunha thinks the state is underestimating the amount of land that would be directly and indirectly affected. Farmers “just want to be left alone,” he says. “They want to farm and their kids want to farm.”
Trying to move forward
East of Hanford, along an expanse of neatly plowed fields that sprout tomatoes and cotton when the weather warms, Bob Link sees a bounty. A bullet train station planned here, near a crossroad of two rural highways, would serve Hanford and Visalia, where Link is mayor.
By state estimates, the initial leg of high-speed rail construction from north of Fresno through Kings County to the outskirts of Bakersfield would create more than 100,000 jobs. That includes additional work funded by new state and federal pledges of $1.2 billion. Link says those jobs are a good reason to accept the chosen route and get started. “They have to take it through the Valley somewhere,” he says.
That’s a sentiment that resonates with job seekers as well as public officials struggling with the social ills of a region recently singled out for having one of the lowest standards of living and education in the nation.
“We have high unemployment and high poverty,” says Kings County Supervisor Tony Oliveira, a farmer and part-time economics professor. There is no comparison between the game-changing economic payoff of the rail project, he contends, and the modest adverse impacts on the huge agricultural industry. There are nearly 800,000 acres of agricultural land in Kings County alone, he notes.
Growers fighting the approved alignment “have a strong voice,” he says, “but I do not think they represent the majority of the people here.”
The Central Valley has been a “forgotten land” economically, says Oliveira, who has been at odds with other supervisors on the route issue. “We deserve our shot.”
One prize several communities covet is a train maintenance yard that would come with 1,500 well-paying, permanent jobs. If placed in Kings County, the facility would easily be one of the largest employers, says John S. Lehn, president of the county Economic Development Corp.
Even more appealing for many is the idea of a convenient connection to Southern California and the Bay Area. It would break a sense of isolation, says Link, giving residents greatly improved opportunities to get to large cities “for medical reasons, education reasons and entertainment reasons.”
At the Hanford Amtrak station, retirees Chris and John Sundstrom from Visalia have their overnight bags and are heading to San Francisco for Chris’ 60th birthday. It’s a journey that involves switching to buses in the East Bay. The couple dreams of a day when they can hop on the kind of high-speed trains they’ve ridden in Europe. “It’s like you’re flying you’re going so fast,” Chris Sundstrom says.
Watching the slogging progress of California’s system is frustrating, she says. “It’s just so slow in coming.”
If all goes as planned, the nonoperational backbone of the funded Valley track will be finished in 2017. It’s not clear when the state would get the additional $37 billion or more needed to begin carrying passengers south to Los Angeles and Anaheim and northwest to San Francisco.
Supporters want to keep the public’s focus on the 800-mile system that would one day extend to San Diego and Sacramento. They hope that starting work in the Valley will spur enthusiasm for the entire network.
But at least one high-profile backer is troubled by the early simmer of controversy in places like Kings County. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), one of the state’s earliest and strongest high-speed rail advocates, led the fight to begin the project in the Valley. Now, he’s pushing the rail authority to minimize agricultural disruptions and improve communications with farmers so momentum isn’t lost.
“Every step of the way, they are going to have to be working with local communities,” said Costa spokesman Will Crain. “We want to make sure the authority gets this right.”