High-Speed Rail: Back on track?

150 150 Niki Woodard

Will California’s high speed rail look anything like these trains in Taiwan? (photo: loudtiger/Flickr)

High speed rail is on the move again, but its destination is as undetermined as the sources of funding that will carry it through. 

Last week, a few red lights turned green, but there are still many hurdles to clear. The following timeline summarizes a few HSR milestones, both past and future.

  • July 6, 2012: Senate approves SB 1029, legislation to authorize use of state bond funds to begin construction
  • July 16, 2012: Revised EIR issued for Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of track
  • July 18, 2012: Gov. Brown signs SB 1029
  • September 20, 2012: EIR public comment period ends
  • November/December 2012: Contractor bid expected to be awarded for construction of the Merced to Bakersfield HSR segment, setting the stage to employ 100,000
  • Fall 2017: Deadline for completing $6 billion in HSR construction in Central Valley
  • 2022: 300-mile HSR service between Merced and San Fernando Valley will launch
  • 2027: 520-mile service between San Francisco and Los Angeles will launch

Authorization of funds

Last Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown celebrated the California legislature’s vote to move forward with HSR construction. He honored that milestone in Los Angeles rather than the Central Valley where the first tracks will be laid. Why? According to reporting by the Sacramento Bee, it’s likely because his reception in the Valley would have been less than inviting: “Had Brown come [here], one opponent said, he might have had tomatoes lobbed at him.”

Opposition to HSR has been stark in the Central Valley. According to a Visalia Times-Delta news article, Assemblywoman Connie Conway (R-Visalia) responded to the Senate vote by slamming the Democrats’ priorities: “They have put taxpayers on the hook for up to $4.7 billion in annual debt service for a project that we simply can’t afford. Every dollar spent repaying debt is a dollar that won’t go to classrooms, police and other vital priorities.” 

Local residents’ opinions are more open minded, according to an unofficial poll conducted by the Visalia Times-Delta. 

Dora Martinez, 55, of Tulare, told the Times-Delta that she is in favor of the train: distracted driving, crowded freeways and high fuel prices are among the reasons she would choose to ride the train. 

In the same article, Chris Petty, 50, a registered nurse at Kaweah Delta, said he likes the idea but not the cost. “I think it would be great, but we don’t have the money – debt reduction first,” Petty said. 

Joe Vaccaro, a small business owner on Main Street, is concerned that Californians won’t ride it because they are too car-centric. “I think Californians are too used to their cars. They’re not going to spend money on the train,” he said. He went on to suggest to the Times-Delta, “Take all the money and help convert cars to natural gas which California has an overabundance of.”

The construction of California’s high speed rail may never see the public support that helped it pass at the ballot in 2008. As of now, it’s moving forward and the real test may be how many passengers it takes along the tracks when service is launched. 

Revised EIR Issued

The first environmental impact report (EIR) for the Fresno to Bakersfield segment of the project was issued last August, but was retracted due to claims from critics that the report failed to provide satisfactory route alternatives and didn’t adequately evaluate the train’s effects on Valley agriculture, homes and businesses.

Critics in Kings County have been among the most vociferous in their opposition due to the rail’s expected impacts to dairies and farms, the backbone of the county’s economy. The county is involved in a lawsuit to thwart the project.

The original rail alignment, known as the Hanford East alignment, would impact 13 dairies according to the EIR. The new alternative, known as Hanford West, would impact four to six dairies. But the changes haven’t gone far enough for residents and elected officials in Kings County.

“It’s as though we’re totally disregarded once again,” Deb West, assistant county administrative officer, told the Hanford Sentinel. “To say that we were stunned is an understatement,” she said.

One dairy owner who would be affected by the new route told the Hanford Sentinel that he’d lose an estimated $1.8 million in annual revenue, which would threaten the viability of his operation. 

Further down the line, Bakersfield elected officials are concerned about impacts to farmland and city properties. City Manager, Alan Tandy, criticized project officials for issuing the revised document without first resuming discussions with the city. 

And Jeff Taylor, Chairman for the Save Bakersfield Committee, told the Bakersfield Californian, “The only responsible remedy is to plan rail alignment and station locations outside our metropolitan community.” 

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, has been a steady critic of HSR and issued an email statement to the Bakersfield Californian reinforcing his position in light of the recently released EIR. 

“The California High Speed Rail Authority’s revised EIR report doesn’t change the fundamental flaws of this project: a lack of private investment, flawed cost estimates and ridership numbers, and reliance on borrowing money we don’t have,” he stated.

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales stated in a press release, “We know we haven’t addressed all issues to everyone’s satisfaction but this part of the process is designed to get the public’s input to continue to improve this document going forward.”

Several informational workshops and public hearings will be held between Fresno and Bakersfield during the EIR comment period. 


Niki Woodard

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