Shedding Some Light on HSR Land Acquisition Woes

Mar 11th, 2015 | Posted by

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.

Don’t Hold Your Breath For That Hyperloop Test Track

Mar 10th, 2015 | Posted by

Recently a story has been making the rounds that a company plans to build a hyperloop test track in the Central Valley:

The idea is to build a five-mile track in Quay Valley, a planned community (itself a grandiose idea) that will be built from scratch on 7,500 acres of land around Interstate 5, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Construction of the hyperloop will be paid for with $100 million Hyperloop Transportation Technologies expects to raise through a direct public offering in the third quarter of this year.

Of course, Elon Musk has his own Hyperloop test track plans, so we might as well just close up the California high speed rail project, right?

Not so fast. As Gizmodo points out, this is all just a beautiful delusion:

As Wired points out Hyperloop Transportation Technologies avoids many of the pesky right-of-way problems inherent in plowing 400 miles of infrastructure through the world by building the track. Of course, the full-scale five-mile track won’t demonstrate some of the most important details because it’s not going to get the capsules going 800 miles per hour.

The larger point to be made here is that the Hyperloop’s challenges aren’t technical. They’re political. Which is also true of high speed rail. Obtaining the necessary funding, the right-of-way, the legislative authorization, and the favorable judgement of judges in the inevitable lawsuits are all the real obstacles to building any kind of high speed travel system in North America, whether it’s a bullet train or a hyperloop.

Elon Musk had it easy when he built the Tesla. The political battles to build a national road system were fought and won decades ago. Designing a new vehicle to use that system is not actually that hard. But as Musk has since discovered, politics do still get in the way – as car dealers get legislatures to ban Tesla sales in various states.

I would love to see a Hyperloop built. But until it can solve the political challenges that the California HSR project is dealing with, it’s still nothing more than a beautiful delusion.


Tutor Perini May Demand Compensation for HSR Delays

Mar 7th, 2015 | Posted by

Tutor Perini has a reputation for bidding low and then making more money on a contract via change orders and litigation. Are we seeing the first signs of that on high speed rail? Our old buddy Ralph Vartabedian drew attention to a possible Tutor claim against the state for HSR delays:

The contractor building the first segment of the California bullet train system said Monday it is seeking compensation for delays in the project and is not likely to start any major construction until June or July — months later than state officials said just weeks ago.

Ronald Tutor, chief executive Tutor Perini, said Monday the Sylmar firm has begun discussing compensation for a 1 1/2-year delay, but so far he has not filed a formal claim against the state….

About $2 billion of the $3.2 billion in grants for the project from the Obama administration came under the stimulus program for so-called “shovel ready” projects. But the rail project has been hobbled by lawsuits, slow contract negotiations, environmental reviews and, most significantly, by the slow rate of land acquisitions by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Vartabedian’s article claims the delays are caused by the slow pace of land acquisition, though Lisa Marie Alley of the California High Speed Rail Authority says they do not believe they are behind schedule and will be able to deliver the project on time.

Land acquisition has been slow, but part of the problem there has been delays in getting state funds released, as well as the numerous lawsuits that have been filed against the project. And some landowners are refusing to sell and going to court – some of them because they genuinely believe they deserve a better price, but surely some are doing so because they think it can help stop the project entirely.

Eminent domain is neither a quick or easy process. In a nation that is generally fanatical about defending property rights, that’s no surprise. And the CHSRA has, as far as I can see, done everything it can to try and get this process done speedily, in spite of the many obstacles thrown in its path.

But if there is any way the state can accelerate this process, it would be most welcome – if nothing else than to end some of the uncertainty facing land owners along the route.

As to Tutor’s complaints, I’m not convinced there’s any justification for him getting more money over this issue. But it does bolster the company’s reputation for such maneuvers.

CHSRA Provides Comprehensive Project Update to Legislature

Mar 4th, 2015 | Posted by

In 2012 the state legislature mandated that the California High Speed Rail Authority provide a status report on the HSR project twice a year, on March 1 and on November 15. It’s early March, and so the CHSRA has submitted its first project update of 2015.

The whole document provides a good, comprehensive look at where California HSR is at right now, from a cost overview to an examination of different segments of the project – including the Phase II routes to Sacramento and San Diego.

One thing it does is lay out the current timeline for opening the route, on page 24 of the document:

2022: Initial Operating Segment, consisting of a single-seat ride from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.

2026: San José to San Fernando Valley, with a single-seat ride from San Francisco to the LA area that includes the shared use of Caltrain tracks.

2028: SF to LA/Anaheim, a single-seat ride from Transbay Terminal to Union Station and ARTIC. It would use shared tracks from SF to SJ, dedicated HSR infrastructure from SJ to LAUS, and share tracks with Metrolink from LAUS to ARTIC.

The update also covers projected dates of construction completion:

2018: Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield
2021: Bakersfield-Palmdale
2022: Palmdale-Burbank
2026: San José-Merced
2028: San Francisco-San José

Burbank to LA and LA to Anaheim are listed as TBD.

The document also provides an excellent overview of existing lawsuits, right of way acquisition, and financing.

The Sacramento Business Journal pointed to the following five issues as highlights of the report: the update on HSR to Sacramento, ongoing discussions with XpressWest regarding a link to Las Vegas, worker training, environmental lawsuits, and land acquisition delays. I’ll quote from that last point:

4. Heavy construction continues to be delayed by land acquisition. The state has acquired and delivered just 105 or 28 percent of parcels to the design-build contractor along the route’s first 24-mile stretch. While some have raised concerns that the delay could jeopardize federal grants that must be spent by September 2017, the authority writes that “the process has begun to trend more positively.”

This is a criticism Republicans like Jeff Denham have made of the project, but it is clear that ROW acquisition – delayed by lawsuits and Republican opposition – needs to accelerate.

Overall this a great look at the state of the HSR project as of March 2015. Take a look and share your thoughts in the comments.