Bullet train agency still slow to acquire land


Buying land for California’s bullet train remains a slow and contentious process for the state’s high-speed rail agency — but the state’s top rail official said this week he doesn’t expect any “significant” project delays as a result.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority must still acquire rights to nearly 1,000 land parcels in the Central Valley for the first leg of the 800-mile rail network, expected to one day stretch from Sacramento to San Diego.

As of July, it had legal possession of just 300 of the 1,277 necessary parcels for the initial Merced-to-Bakersfield line. This 130-mile portion has been called the “backbone” of the project.

The first 29 miles of that leg is expected to be built by the end of 2017 or early 2018, rail officials said this week.

The agency would need to significantly quicken its pace to open its initial operating section, from Merced to Burbank, by the authority’s estimated 2022 time-frame.

Jeff Morales, the rail authority’s CEO, said in an interview on Wednesday that acquiring land is “a big, big focus.”

In the meantime, he said, construction crews will work at key points along land already acquired until the authority obtains the rest.

“We don’t see a significant impact” to the construction timeline, Morales said. “We built in contingencies.”

Still, Morales said, the authority will issue a revised construction timeline for the first 29 miles this fall. He said that revision should better match up construction work with land recently acquired, but added that he does not expect it will push back the initial project’s end-date.

First stretch under construction

Heavy construction started in Madera in June to build the first of 16 concrete footings for an elevated rail bridge over the Fresno River. That work is part of the Central Valley’s first 29-mile stretch, from Madera to Fresno counties. But even for this earliest of projects, the state has just 223 of 543 parcels needed for construction, which is expected to be complete in 2017.

Landowners have alleged the authority’s property agents are using pressure tactics to speed up the process. They’ve also said they’ve received low-ball offers.

Rail authority officials said this week they’re committed to improving the process and making fair offers. Morales said the authority plans to train and retrain its right-of-way consultants, streamline its internal processes and add more staff.

The state’s pace of acquiring land has picked up in recent months. In March, for example, it had legal possession of just 139 parcels.

“We’re seeing an uptick,” Morales told an authority finance committee on Tuesday in Sacramento. “We do expect, based on specific changes we’ve made, the pace to pick up over the next few months.”

The state has also sped up its use of eminent domain.

In July, it listed 159 parcels under “parcel to condemn,” or to take following a fair market offer. That’s up from 33 under the same listing in March.

Use of eminent domain

In an interview after Tuesday’s board meeting, Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority’s board, said the agency wants to avoid eminent domain as much as possible. That’s because the associated legal process can take longer than negotiating directly with a landowner, Richard said.

In 2008, California voters authorized nearly $10 billion in bonds for the bullet train project by approving Proposition 1A. The ballot measure said the network would link the state’s urban centers from Sacramento to San Diego, with the San Francisco to Los Angeles connection serving as the central line. Cost estimates for that central line have ranged as high as $96 billion, but were revised downward in recent years to $68 billion.

At the authority’s finance committee meeting, board members urged rail authority staff to find ways to improve and speed up land acquisition. But given the complexities of the project, they said they remained realistic about how quickly the authority could move.

“Major government infrastructure projects all have issues. What we’re trying to do is stay ahead of the issues and correct the issues,” said Tom Richards, the board’s vice chairman and a Fresno resident.

“I don’t think anyone thought this was going to be easy, so I guess we’re all right,” added Mike Rossi, also a board member.

Contact reporter Chris Nichols at [email protected] or on Twitter @ChrisTheJourno

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