It’s become clear in recent weeks that one of the main challenges facing the California high speed rail project, now that it’s navigated most of the initial political, legal, and financial hurdles, is the anemic pace of land acquisition. Tim Sheehan at the Fresno Bee takes a closer look at the issue and concludes part of the problem may be poor management of the process:
Millard Downing said the people who appraised his property on Ponderosa Street, just east of Hanford, “apparently came and made an appraisal when I wasn’t even there” by taking photos from over the neighbors’ fences.
He expressed a concern about the lack of local experience by property agents. “The appraisal team for my area is from Houston, Texas, and the property people who work with you are from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he said. And, he added, the comparable properties used to help appraisers establish a value for his home surprised him. “One was up in Ahwahnee, on the way to Yosemite, 80 miles from my place, and one was in Auberry, about 60 miles away,” Downing said. “And another was from Sanger, 33 miles from my house.”
“Something needs to be done to assist in this process,” he said. “It’s not doing anything to help you guys do the train.”
The concerns bothered the rail authority board members, who pledged to take residents’ complaints seriously.
At one point the California High Speed Rail Authority had contracted with Caltrans, which has decades of experience on this subject, to help manage the land acquisition process. I don’t know how that has unfolded, and the HSR project is under a far greater amount of scrutiny than a typical freeway widening project, but it’s clear that the process so far is not working.
That said, one has to keep in mind that there are always problems when government seeks to purchase land for a public project. Sellers always believe their land is worth more than it actually is. Government is obligated to pay fair market value, and has a strong interest in ensuring that fair market value is defined as low as possible. These disputes routinely end up in court.
It’s surely the case that HSR’s high public profile, and opposition from some people living near the route, complicates matters. Someone living near a freeway widening knows it’s extremely likely that the project will get built and so it does them no good to hold out or take a risk and pay the costs of going to court. But there is just enough uncertainty about HSR – at least in the minds of the media and on the part of the Valley’s Republican representatives – to create an incentive on the part of property owners who don’t want to sell or who want to get more money than they might otherwise deserve to hold out and delay as long as they can. Maybe they just might derail the whole thing.
That’s not to say every unhappy property owner is trying to game the system. But I would not be surprised to find that some are, and that may be part of the story behind the delay.
Whatever the causes, this is clearly the latest and most pressing challenge for the HSR project managers to solve.