Rail plan will crush land owners


JUNE 10, 2010


Jim Erickson is in a tough spot. If the proposed California High Speed Rail Route A-1 goes through Madera County, it will bisect his ranch. But if Route A-2 gets built, it will slice off a portion of another part of his farmland. “They’re going to get me no matter what I do,” the rancher and president of the Madera County Farm Bureau said.

Erickson, who grows almonds, olives, grapes and peaches on 400 acres and whose grandfather first began farming in Madera in 1920, is far from alone. The proposed High-Speed Rail project, in which trains traveling in excess of 200 miles per hour will shoot between Los Angeles and San Francisco, will chew up hundreds of landowners across the state. While the High-Speed Rail Authority says that they’ll incur a little more than half of their estimated “right of way” costs in just two of the project’s seven segments – Palmdale to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Anaheim – the situation in Madera County is of interest because the two proposed routes have pit farmers against city officials over who will lose more property to the train tracks.

The cities of Madera and Chowchilla like Route A-1, the so-called eastern route, which parallels the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail corridor. Madera Farm Bureau executive director Julia Berry says that route will affect 500 land owners.

“There’s nothing but agriculture on the A-1,” Berry said. “We’ve never opposed high-speed rail. But we’ve always been in favor of A-2, even though Jim Erickson would lose property if A-2 goes into effect. We’re looking at what’s best for the county.”

But Madera and Chowchilla officials hate Route A-2, which generally follows Union Pacific tracks. “For Chowchilla specifically, it would completely eliminate our retail and commercial corridor along Highway 99,” Chowchilla Mayor Jim Kopshever said in the April 25, 2010 Modesto Bee.

How many people eventually lose part or all of their land and property to the High-Speed Rail project –and how much such takings will cost – is impossible to say at this point, said one authority staffer authorized to speak only on background. Until the authority board approves the project routes, which will allow the completion the environmental reviews, there’s no way to tell how many people will eventually lose their property. That’s not going to happen until September 2011 at the earliest, the staffer said, adding that the authority is looking to beef up its right of way expertise.

Despite that, a small table of “cost estimates” buried on page 85 of the high-speed rail project’s December 2009 Business Plan – the most current such document publicly available – shows $2.892 billion budgeted for “Right-of-Way.” The table indicates that the authority would spend $527 million of that in 2011, $899 million in 2010 and $915 million in 2013 before dramatically tapering off to zero in 2017.

Other tables show right-of-way costs broken down by segment. The dense urban route between Los Angeles and Anaheim would be the most expensive, costing an estimated $851 million. The tracks running from Bakersfield to Palmdale would be the cheapest to obtain, costing just an estimated $50 million. The authority believes the Merced to Fresno section, which includes Chowchilla and Madera, will incur $221 million in right-of-way acquisition costs.

What’s more, the authority insists that it will pay “fair market value” to any and all property owners that have to give up their land for the trains.

“It is the duty of the Rail Authority to ensure that you receive fair market value as if you sold property privately in the open market,” states Your Property, Your High-Speed Rail Project, an 11-page booklet given to anyone whose property might be consumed by the rail lines. “The Rail Authority cannot buy your property for more than it is worth, but it can and will assure you that you do not have to sell your property for less than its fair market value. California law provides that the owner shall receive a copy of the appraisal or a summary of the valuation upon which the Rail Authority’s offer is based.”

Of course, given the size and build-out time of the high-speed rail project, the accuracy of these cost estimates is, at the very least, questionable. “The record of these kinds of projects is absolutely dismal in projecting capital costs,” said Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant who co-wrote the September 2009 Reason Foundation report The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report. “It’s hard to say what the costs will be. There’s uncertainty with respect to the Los Angeles to Anaheim section, which is the least justified portion of the entire system.”

Indeed, the Reason Foundation report states that the high-speed rail authority is seriously underplaying the proposed train’s final costs. Currently, the authority says the Los Angeles to San Francisco portion of the train (other proposed segments extend the line south to San Diego and east to Sacramento) will ultimately cost $35.7 billion, with the entire system ending up costing about $54.3 billion. But Cox says the Los Angeles to San Francisco line’s cost will more likely run between $39.7 billion and $49.6 billion, while all of the segments put together will most likely cost between $65.2 billion and $81.4 billion.

A big part of the reason for the huge disparity between the authority’s and Reason’s figures is the projected impact the rail lines will have on property owners. Making matters worse is that the more the authority condemns and takes property, the more public opposition will grow against the trains.

“Planning has been canceled for several high-speed rail projects in the United States and public opposition has been a major contributing factor,” the Reason report stated. “Once such site-specific impacts have been identified, opposition is likely to build among affected citizens, community organizations and public officials. The greater the impact, the greater the opposition… It is likely that project opponents will emerge as public understanding builds regarding local and neighborhood impacts.”

The report then bulleted six potential “impacts” that could spark opposition, one of which was “Using eminent domain proceedings to take homes, businesses and agricultural lands from unwilling owners.”

The possibility that the rail authority may take his land and then decide that the project won’t work or is too expensive is what really scares Erickson. “Will they get this section built and then realize that they can’t afford it?” he asked rhetorically. “They ruin all these ranches, and then say, ‘Oh well, it didn’t work.’ But they’ve scarred the land forever. It’s a bad situation for us all.”

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