California's high-speed train: economic silver bullet or wounding shot at CA ag?

Jul 20, 2012

As always, California is speeding along, this time on the issue of fast trains. Whether it’s blazing the trail to the future of transportation in America or speeding to its own fiscal demise and taking its agricultural sector along for the ride is up for debate.

At the beginning of this month, California state senators narrowly passed SB 1029 to appropriate $4.7 billion to begin work on the proposed high-speed rail (HSR) project, which California Gov. Jerry Brown then signed July 18. Objections are numerous and mostly focused on California’s financial straits, but the planned route cuts through the state’s prime crop land, making the project a concerning agricultural issue.

The map above shows the planned route of the rail line running directly through the heart of California’s most productive farmland. This route would require the acquisition of thousands of parcels of farm and pasture land, as well as cause significant, wide-ranging negative impacts to remaining California agriculture.

Agricultural issues

California’s Farm Bureau has made the statement in no uncertain terms that the HSR plans “represent an imminent threat to productive farmland.”

According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) own data, the proposed route would require 1,500 to 2,350 acres of farmland currently under cultivation or active use to come out of production. The California Farm Bureau (CFB) claims that number is a gross underestimate and does not account for the tens of thousands of additional acres which, because of bisection or water line disruption the rail line represents, would become unprofitable and unfarmable.

“The high-speed rail system would change the landscape for generations across some of the most productive agricultural counties in the United States,” said CFB President Paul Wenger.

“We understand the need for transportation projects, but we should not needlessly sacrifice food production, family farmers and workers who depend on agricultural jobs.”

A letter from over a dozen groups, representing California agricultural interests, sent to CHSRA in 2010 neatly outlined numerous negative impacts the HSR project would have which still represent core objections to the project today.

Chemicals banned: California is the most heavily regulated state in terms of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide application. The human proximity and wind speeds the HSR would represent would effectively make it illegal for those growing crops near the rail to apply any of these standard chemicals as drift could not be controlled. If such chemicals were to drift onto a passenger vehicle such as the proposed HSR trains, a grower could be liable for tens of thousands of dollars in environmental penalties.

Pollination woes: Bees critical for pollination of many of California’s key crops are very sensitive to wind speed. The wind speeds the HSR would create would prevent bees from pollinating plants near the HSR line. Without bee activity, California’s nut orchards will not produce a crop. The wind speeds would also rip blooms off of flowering trees and plants. The yields of permanent crops such as almonds and grapes—pivotal crops of California’s central valley—are directly tied to flower counts.

Water disruption: The planned route will disrupt existing irrigation lines. Rerouting them is not only costly but also harms those farmers, ranchers and residents who depend on them during the process to reroute them. Most irrigation canals in California work via a gravity pull, but if they must be buried at each HSR crossing or altered to allow for the train, expensive pumps will have to be used instead, increasing power demands and reducing reliability.

Many alternate routes have been suggested for the HSR which would significantly reduce the impact on agriculture. The most ideal route in many minds—including SNCF, the French developer of one of the world’s most successful high speed rail systems— would be to run California’s HSR along Interstate 5. Putting the HSR in an existing transportation corridor would reduce eminent domain conflicts with ranchers, farmers and residents, as well as eliminating the aforementioned impacts to agriculture.

Dan McNamara, a civil engineer who worked for SNCF’s U.S. affiliate, told the Los Angeles Times that running the HSR along the I-5 would be significantly cheaper than the current plan at an estimated $38 billion. However, bypassing Fresno and other more inland destinations was called a deal breaker, according to California transportation officials, regardless of the potential benefits of running along the I-5.

Economic benefits

Those in favor of the project claim the HSR will bring numerous benefits which justify the expense. CHSRA lists a number of projected benefits to the state—economic, environmental, and community— but the most common talking points in favor of the HSR project relate to job creation.

“This legislation will help put thousands of people in California back to work,” said Brown in Los Angeles when he signed the funding bill for the initial stretch of the project. “By improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work.”

As listed on its website, CHSRA claims the HSR project will create as many as 100,000 non-permanent construction jobs every year the project is being built, up to 450,000 permanent jobs directly related to the trains over the next 25 years, and “tens of thousands” of indirect jobs surrounding the rail system in the form of vendors and services related to the stations.

Other, less specific economic benefits CHSRA attributes to the HSR project are increased ease of transport, improved land-based travel for people, and reduced congestion on highways.

Most of the purported benefits are countered by watchdog groups such as High Speed Boondoggle and parties negatively affected by the project.

Claims relating to job creation have been especially contentious over the history of the HSR.

An investigation by the San Jose Mercury News conducted in 2011 regarding CHSRA’s then claim that jobs created because of the project would be well over a million found that the numbers were vastly over-inflated.

CHSRA has since adjusted its estimate and admitted that its earlier definition of job creation had been “imprecise and potentially confusing.” Despite the lowered job estimates (reported above, as posted on the CHSRA official fact sheet) the Mercury News investigation’s conclusion casts doubt on even those claims.

The most common complaint against the HSR project heard in the mainstream media is the extreme cost of the project coupled with the state’s deplorable economic situation. California has long been deep in debt. In an effort to bridge its fiscal canyon, the state has been cutting public services and reducing school years, and has plans to increase taxes soon. To add an ironic bite to the fiscal side of the HSR discussion, two large California cities (Stockton and San Bernardino) filed for bankruptcy just before and after the early-July state senate vote to acquire funds for the project.

Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R- Richvale, voiced the frustration of his constituents following the Senate vote. “Voters simply aren’t buying the line that we need to cut education and public safety but have ample money for high-speed rail, and they’re right not to.”

About the train

In its original inception—the one presented to the voters in 2008—California’s HSR project was expected to cost $33 billion, would run roughly 800 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and open to the public in 2020. The original vision of the project was planned to be electrified, which would allow it to reach top speeds of 220 miles per hour on dedicated tracks.

The plan has undergone numerous revisions. The most recent plan—often called Gov. Brown’s “blended” plan—estimates the cost at $68 billion with service beginning on some segments in 2029. The “blended” element comes from the planned usage of existing commuter and transport tracks in both Southern and Northern California, some of which are over a century old.

The planned use of existing tracks was in an effort to control costs which had ballooned to $117 billion at one point. However, using basic rails rather than building proprietary tracks for the HSR means the trains can not be electrified as originally planned and thereby will not reach the top speeds projected.

There is significant contention over whether the blended, non-electrical version of the HSR plan is different enough from the version presented in Prop 1A as to be an illegal use of monies OK’d by the voters. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor