Tracks Have To Go Somewhere
Today’s LA Times has a good article on concerns among Central Valley farmers with the proposed high speed rail route. These concerns are nothing new; we’ve known for well over a year that farmers would prefer the tracks to stick as closely as possible to existing corridors and not go onto their land. Of course, the small towns along the route also don’t want the tracks in their communities either. The tracks have to go somewhere, so someone is going to be left unhappy – either cities or farmers.
Before taking a look at the article, let’s remind ourselves of a couple things. First, transportation infrastructure has previously been built through the Central Valley on brand-new alignments that divide up existing farmland – yet somehow farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole seem to have survived. The image below is of Interstate 5 in Kern County, near the town of Buttonwillow. I-5 was built through this area on a totally new alignment in the 1960s:
On the other hand, most Central Valley towns grew up around the railroad. Here’s a shot of Hanford. The BNSF railroad tracks are highlighted in blue. A proposed bypass would be to the right (the east) of that alignment – you can get an idea of where it would be with the location of the proposed Hanford/Visalia station at the intersection of Highways 43 and 198.
View Hanford in a larger map
Keep these in mind as we look over this LA Times article:
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.
Does it really? Look again at the image of Interstate 5 above. Those parcels have certainly been altered, and how they are managed was surely changed. But they’re hardly “destroyed.” They are still productive farmland, as anyone who’s driven through there has seen. Farmers would be compensated for the fair market value of the land that the CHSRA takes to build the project, and should work with local farmers to ensure that irrigation can be built underneath the HSR’s ROW. It is very difficult to accept the charge that HSR would “destroy” agriculture along its route.
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.
This is an important point. Both farmers and cities would have their needs met, their problems solved, if Union Pacific wasn’t so deeply and irrationally hostile to high speed rail. Building along the Highway 99 corridor would still serve the downtowns of Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. A station at Hanford/Visalia would still be possible, and would be quite close to central Visalia. Farm groups should direct their ire not at the Authority, but at Union Pacific, for this situation. Of course, it’s not the first time UP and its antecedents have screwed Kings County residents.
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.
Well, as I’ve explained before, the situation with the stimulus funding has upended the usual project timelines. Typically a route would be finalized and then funding would be secured. But the federal government’s deadlines for stimulus funding have forced an acceleration of that process, and with an understaffed agency, the Authority has had problems with its public outreach in the Valley.
Of course, those problems aren’t helped by some of the attitudes taken by locals. Consider Hanford, whose leaders were so opposed to a downtown alignment that they tried to keep CHSRA staff off of city property:
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.
I’m not sure why Hanford was so opposed. One can preserve those old buildings as well as make room for new development. Instead they are going to have a station on the edge of town, sucking away money and customers from the existing downtown. Perhaps that’s the city’s intention, but it seems unnecessary. Still, given the fact that Hanford doesn’t want the tracks downtown, and that nearby farmers don’t want the tracks going through their land, someone is going to be disappointed here.
That decision should be done on the basis of what is best for the project itself. Both cities and farmers need to keep in mind that the Authority has a duty to the people of California to build a project that will attract riders, but also one that is constructed with the best use of available funding. If a bypass of Hanford or Corcoran is necessary, it would not be any more damaging to farmers than the construction of Interstate 5 nearly 50 years ago. And if going through those cities is necessary, it does not seem likely to be any more damaging than when the Highway 99 freeway was built through Bakersfield and Fresno.
More importantly, HSR is necessary to bring jobs to a part of the state that desperately needs it. The LA Times article devoted at least 1/3 of its length to this topic, showing how the dispute over where the tracks go is of secondary importance to the issue of job creation. It’s a lesson Peninsula NIMBYs would do well to learn:
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. [Visalia mayor Bob] 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.”
I think this is the right approach to take. The Central Valley has too often been left behind in terms of economic development in California. It has high unemployment, and that acts as a drag on the rest of the state – reducing tax revenue while increasing state spending on the necessary safety net services that the unemployed and the poor deserve. Residents of the Valley, including Hanford and Visalia, deserve good jobs too. And HSR will help provide them, both in construction of the system and in bringing new jobs to the region, as we discussed in the most recent post.
As we saw with not only the construction of Interstate 5, but also with construction of canals and aqueducts, there will be impacts on both cities and farmland. The Authority ought to work, and is working, with farmers and city dwellers to reduce those impacts and find ways to ensure as many needs are met as possible during route selection, construction, and operation. Still, we must recognize that the tracks do have to go somewhere, and if cities and farmers both don’t want them, then one side is going to have to accept something they don’t want, for the good of the community, the region, and the state.