LA Times Sees a Land Acquisition Crisis Where None Exists

Jan 27th, 2013 | Posted by

Our old friend Ralph Vartabedian is at it again, spinning yet another article biased against the California high speed rail project. This time it’s his claim that the state is late to begin purchasing right-of-way for the Madera-Fresno high speed rail construction segment:

Construction of California’s high-speed rail network is supposed to start in just six months, but the state hasn’t acquired a single acre along the route and faces what officials are calling a challenging schedule to assemble hundreds of parcels needed in the Central Valley.

The complexity of getting federal, state and local regulatory approvals for the massive $68-billion project has already pushed back the start of construction to July from late last year. Even with that additional time, however, the state is facing a risk of not having the property to start major construction work near Fresno as now planned.

It hopes to begin making purchase offers for land in the next several weeks. But that’s only the first step in a convoluted legal process that will give farmers, businesses and homeowners leverage to delay the project by weeks, if not months, and drive up sales prices, legal experts say.

OMG crisis!!!

Or not. This is pretty typical practice for building major transportation projects in California. Land purchases tend to happen close to the construction start date for a variety of reasons, one of which is that funding to begin purchases usually isn’t available until all other project approvals have been given. And construction can begin soon thereafter because the approvals are in. It’s no different than a light rail line or a freeway widening, projects where land acquisition happens without much trouble or fuss.

In fact, had the California High Speed Rail Authority been buying land sooner, they’d have come under criticism for driving down land prices based on a project that isn’t sure to be built, and hoarding land that theoretically might never be used. That was a major point of contention in South LA in the 1970s and 1980s when the state had already purchased and cleared the right of way for the Century Freeway/Interstate 105, but did not actually start building until the late ’80s. Some of that delay was due to lawsuits, but other delays came because of uncertain state funding. Had the CHSRA begun sooner, I’m sure there would have been a Ralph Vartabedian article trashing them for that too.

It’s true that there will be those along the HSR route who will not be willing sellers:

Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, which is suing to halt the project under the California Environmental Quality Act, said the rail authority will face strong opposition to condemnation proceedings in the Central Valley. The bureau has hired a condemnation expert to help battle the land seizures….

Kole Upton, an almond farmer who leads the rail watchdog group Preserve Our Heritage, questioned the rail agency’s expertise in conducting complex appraisals of agricultural land that has orchards, irrigation systems and processing facilities.

“I am not sure this thing has been well thought out by people who have a deep understanding of agriculture,” Upton said. “I live on my farm, and my son lives on my farm. My dad started it after World War II. This is our heritage and our future.”

But Caltrans is available to help assist in this process, as is the state Attorney General’s office. There is plenty of expertise in this process, and the courts can be expedient in processing these cases.

This article, as with so many by that author, is much ado about nothing.

  1. John Nachtigall
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 06:19

    Off this topic but of interest to this board. Popular Dcience had an article on the new mandatory collision avoidance systems.

    The author seems torn on if it is a good idea or not since it only avoids 2% of crashes and saves about 7 people each year. But the are the most spectacular crashes. It is pretty obvious the rail industry does not consider the current system “broke”.

    Considering we are probably less than 10 years away from individual GPS tracking of packages it is interesting there will still be “dark territory” covered by watches and schedules.

    Jerry Reply:

    Sounds like the former Pinto Philosophy of the Ford Motor Co.
    Save money by not recalling their defective Pinto’s gas tank and deal later with the few lawsuits over the people who get killed.

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    that very example is quoted in the article, with an open question as to if it is the right approach or not.

  2. synonymouse
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 10:03

    The LA Times is simply channeling the fact most people in California now oppose the CHSRA. Of course the LA Times supports the program – they are continually mute about the DeTour in their face, obviously in league with Villa and Antonovich.

    Nothing unusual about government implementing a minority policy. There are lots of examples over the years – Prohibition being a blatant one – and of course many unpopular wars around the globe. Business as usual.

    The media need a story – witness the tv stations trying to talk up a Super Bowl riot.

    VBobier Reply:

    Most people oppose HSR in CA? The LA Times isn’t worth lining My cats litter box with, but then their in the business of selling Newspapers, the more salacious the better for the LA Times, and as to HSR it is still very much popular in CA, except in Your small mind….

    joe Reply:

    Synonymouse unskewed the polls.
    HSR is unpopular and Romney in landslide.

    EJ Reply:

    joe Reply:

    We just had an election and Prop 30 was doooomed because of HSR’s reckless and unpopular spending.

    The initiative to re-vote and repeal HSR failed to get signatures to get on the ballot.

    Every time the CA voters have a real choice at the ballot they get the full story instead of propaganda and are fully informed, they support HSR.

    synonymouse Reply:

    CA voters are a bunch of airheads easily brainwashed. I ought to know – I was one of them.

    Moonbeam will make the trains run on time.

    Eric Reply:

    Maybe you’re still brainwashed.

    synonymouse Reply:


    EJ Reply:

    so would you say you have “unskewed” the latest polls showing voters turning against the HSR project?

    joe Reply:


    June 2012 Polls are superseded by reality. We had election in Nov.
    Results all support HSR. Including a failed attack on Prop 30 taxes by asking CA first cut “HSR wasteful spending”.

    There was a total failure to collect signatures for an anti-HSR ballot initiative.

    So obviously we have a conflict with June poll and reality – defined by an election.

    One can probably find a poll showing Meg ahead of Jerry Brown.

    John Burrows Reply:

    In the nearly 8 months since the Dornsife/LA Times poll was released some things have happened in California.

    1. Balanced state budget.
    2. Democrat super-majorities in both houses.
    3. Proposition 30 passes by over 1,300,000 votes
    4. Unemployment rate drops from 10.8% to 9.8%
    5. A poll taken in December shows 44% of Calif. voters think state headed in right direction—Not a great number but up 30 points in just over 3 years.

    If a similar poll were taken now—

    John Burrows Reply:

    I should have said—If an update of the Dornsife/LA Times Poll were to be released tomorrow—

    joe Reply:

    Polls are tools. Polls might show HSR down again based on immediate circumstances, or how questions are asked and who pollsters call and who is paying for the poll and what they want to learn.

    I could poll to find out where HSR is vulnerable to adjust a message or prepare for an election so my poll might show unfavorable results as I am trolling for weaknesses.

    When HSR is considered in an election and advocates can accurately inform the electorate and have equal footing with the critics, HSR wins and wins and wins. It would not have gotten this far being unpopular.

    David K Reply:

    If Californians are opposed to HSR, they certainly haven’t shown it at the ballot box. I’ll believe that CAHSR is doomed with the public once anti-HSR politicians start getting elected, and anti-HSR ballot initiatives start succeeding.

    synonymouse Reply:

    The LA Times gets to have it both ways. They are exploiting the issue by appealing to the majority demographic, namely most voters now realize it is a scam to enrich friends of the regime, but of course the paper helped to create the issue as well and are in reality of one mind with Villa, Antonovich, Zoeller.

    PB worshippers, fear not. You will get your Moondoggle.

    joe Reply:

    LATimes is Tribune Co. Tribune Co. just got out of a long and ugly bankruptcy. readership is dropping. They need hits/links/buzz.

    LATimes is Trolling for eyeballs.

    Party that supports HSR is in power – HSR opponents are sucking up to Gov. Jerry Brown. Jerry’s HSR rulz.

  3. Emily
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 10:26

    “Cole Upton, an almond farmer who leads the rail watchdog group Preserve Our Heritage, questioned the rail agency’s expertise in conducting complex appraisals of agricultural land that has orchards, irrigation systems and processing facilities.”

    I just bet there are appraisers who do appraisals of almond orchards all the time. What would it matter if you’re selling to your fellow almond grower or to the Caltrains guys for the right-of-way for the high speed rail?

  4. Keith Saggers
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 11:36

    Meanwhile in UK

    The two phases of HS2 are priced at £33·1bn in total, of which around 65% is contingency, as required by Treasury guidelines on major project funding. According to DfT, the project is expected to deliver economic benefits of £2 for every £1 in capital expenditure, before external economic benefits are included.

  5. Keith Saggers
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 14:57

    first paragraph “officials”
    third paragraph “legal experts”
    citations needed as our good friends @ wikipedia would say

  6. synonymouse
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 15:00

    I wonder why BART has not made a power play for Ring the Bay. The timing is favorable; so much to gain and nothing to lose.

    The Peninsula would be the jewel in the crown for BART: lots of ridership and growing; and the residents have plenty of money. With both San Francisco and Palo Alto both talking up vastly reducing rail footprint and tunneling, BART has a proven track record of subway construction and is a known quantity as to cost(high but predictable) and the rapid transit profile means smaller and cheaper bores.

    And who could retaliate against BART for trying to pull the plug on Caltrain-CHSRA? MTC? – it is on record against the TBT Tunnel and is virtually a shill for BART. Brown or LaHood? – BART is way too powerful and popular to eff with. Those two will be pushing daisies when BART is still ruling the roost. BART has a thriving bureaucracy and its unions pump money to the patronage machine; the CHSRA has no union. BART has many loyal local political cadres to call upon for support.

    So how come no BART blitzkrieg? Maybe its highly politicized and regionalized Board of Directors is too divided; perhaps management has too many irons in the fire. It could be too that BART has caught the Muni brain-wasting disease and lost its mojo.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Apparently SF and Caltrain have been “squabbling”:

    EJ Reply:

    Would this actually be a bad thing? I mean, sure, BART is insanely expensive, but then so is keeping Caltrain running while HSR is built. And from what I remember from living in the Bay Area, people generally like BART – they don’t have much to compare it with and regard it favorably. And Peninsula NIMBYs actually could probably pay for a BART subway. Clem posted something on his blog a while back as a “devil’s advocate” position for replacing Caltrain with BART and honestly it didn’t seem like a bad tradeoff, especially if it would make it more likely that CAHSR would be forced to use Altamont.

    synonymouse Reply:

    “BART is insanely expensive”

    You ain’t seen nothing yet – Tutor-Saliba ought to do quite nicely with the DeTour.

    You really think Brown will allow this to go down non-union?

    Clem Reply:

    The alligator has already had a meal (San Jose) and will need some time to digest.

    The way forward is to disrupt and delay Caltrain’s electrification until such time as shovels are in the ground for the Santa Clara extension.

    joe Reply:

    Electrification will happen but constrain the ROW. There’s enough growth and demand to reach and along the Peninsula that BART will eventually expand into San Mateo & Santa Clara.

    BART will disrupt any bay crossing that isn’t BART.

    synonymouse Reply:

    I believe San Francisco will force a decision and not too far ahead. They have to decide how much railroad land they require to make the Dogpatch urban removal project economically attractive and then they have to evaluate whether they really need hsr or BART more.

    Doubt it can be both, but Dumbarton hsr might be ok. My guess is they’ll decide they want all the Caltrain land, so hello BART. I cannot imagine a later BART extension if the electrified Caltrain prevails. For one thing BART will finally compare very unfavorably, piece of mierda that it is.

  7. Michael
    Jan 28th, 2013 at 16:30

    Chowchilla has settled with the CHSRA. One less lawsuit. Not much more to the story.

    joe Reply:

    In their suit, Chowchilla leaders asserted that by approving the Merced-Fresno route, the rail authority violated the California Environmental Quality Act by limiting the potential for a full environmental analysis of all of the route alternatives.

    As many as 14 alternatives had been under consideration for the Chowchilla connection on the Merced-Fresno section of the route. Now, only six remain in contention, rail officials said last week. Rail planners said they could select one option for a detailed environmental review by April.

    If the rail agency adopts an alignment that does not include a Highway 99/Union Pacific or Avenue 24 alignment and the city sues again, Chowchilla would receive no settlement from the state.

    Looks consistent. CEQA does not require full analysis of all alternatives. Less and less likely an alignment study, other than the chosen alignment, can be mandated with a CEQA lawsuit.

    The city had their 300K legal fees paid and agreed future suits outside the context of this lawsuit would not be compensated.

    Menlo Park should look to this as a best case outcome fro their lawsuit – walk away and have the fees paid.

    Eric Reply:

    Menlo Park is 32000 rich yuppies. Chowchilla is 18000 poor hicks. Menlo Park will demand more than Chowchilla.

    joe Reply:

    Yes, I agree. The demands will be enormous and unreasonable but MP is not homogenous.

    City Gov’t is permitting asymmetrical impacts (development $) impacting some neighborhoods while protecting other neighborhoods from impacts – including blocking traffic flow using the current ROW.

    Electrification/HSR ROW improvements will solve MPs self-inflicted congestion problems brought on by aggressive expansion and restricting traffic flow.

    An alternative to more rail and better ROW crossings is to reconnect Willow/101 to Sand Hill / 280 (formerly Willow Road) with a 4 lane flyover. Tat cuts into a protected neighborhood.

    VBobier Reply:

    Of course now that Chowchilla is out of the way, another lawsuits bit the dust….

    Eric M Reply:

    But don’t forget, these lawsuits are case law. Previous rulings affect future lawsuits

    synonymouse Reply:

    The Peninsula has to decide whether it prefers Caltrain or BART. It would appear to behave been resolved but both SF and PA plans for gentrification call that into question once again.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Interesting that you talk about “gentrification” in PA, which is already rich.

    swing hanger Reply:

    “gentrification” in PAMPA- shopping at Draegers rather than Whole Foods.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    What’s Draegers, and what social class does it connote?

    (My going theory is that gentrification in an upper middle-class neighborhood connotes an influx of people who are also upper middle-class but younger, much more educated, and lacking ethnic or family ties to the neighborhood, and also rising rents. For example, the Old North of Tel Aviv has been upper middle-class since it was first developed, but whereas 20 years ago most residents were people who had lived in the neighborhood for decades, more recently there has been a movement of younger people and some high-rise residential development, and rents have doubled in the last 10-15 years.)

    Michael Reply:

    Whole Foods = Macy*s / Draeger’s = Neiman Marcus
    or, Draeger’s is a three (?) store group that sprung from a local market to cater to the local community. While quite posh, I wouldn’t bash them, as they are locally-owned and do a good job catering to the local community, even if they find it possible to make someone feel under-dressed when grocery shopping.

    swing hanger Reply:

    Sarcasm. Draegers is a family owned local area grocery store- very expensive and the type that thrives in this area (others are John Valley Foods, Bianchinis, Segona) Actually, it is the established business in the area, likely with an older “been here since the sixties “but wealthy clientele, while Whole Foods is a more recently established nationwide chain, so it can be seen as “counter gentrification” or something.

    synonymouse Reply:

    @ Alon

    A tunnel, whether Caltrain or BART, would free up enough real estate to embark on some serious gentrification of downtown PA. And they might not be the only burg to consider tunnel, especially if BART comes upon the scene. The only question BART would bring up about a subway is how do we go about scoring the necessary monies. With BART money rides subway, bullshit(translate poor) rides the aerial.

    PB works for BART so I suspect they have been trying to drive the “nimbys” into BART’s waiting arms since the beginning.

    Joey Reply:

    What real estate would it free up? It’s nearly impossible to build much on top of a covered trench unless you build it into the design, and even then, what you can build is quite limited. This is particularly true in seismically active areas (i.e. California).

    Joey Reply:

    Not that a covered trench is desirable given local hydrology anyway.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Or, in other words, can the City deal with no trains in the TBT basement? I think the answer is yes if there is enough revenue involved in selling off the rr property.

    BART has always been trying to depose Caltrain and in reality gains nothing from hsr but another rival for funding and ROW. So if TehaVegaSkyRail is bottled up in the Capital of Silicon Valley for eternity wunderBART.

    synonymouse Reply:

    You could put a street right on top of it, like Shattuck in Berkeley and the new development to the sides.

    BART knows how to say yes when there’s money and will. Remember PB works for BART-MTC.

  8. jimsf
    Jan 29th, 2013 at 19:40

    Draegers is awesome with a fantastic deli section!

    Joey Reply:

    And $3000 bottles of Cognac.

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