By Noel T. Braymer
Despite numerous predictions of the imminent death of the California High Speed Rail Project it is still chugging along and even picking up speed now. Not that it hasn’t had a few near death experiences along the way since the voters approved nearly 10 billion dollars in Bonds for it in 2008. The first construction contract was awarded this summer between Fresno and Madera. Already money is being spent around Fresno to hire employees for preliminary work to start construction.
On November 7th the California High Speed Rail Authority Board announced what they expect will be the final route between Fresno and Bakersfield. Once environmental studies are approved construction contracts can proceed on this leg in a few months. Construction of 130 miles of High Speed Rail right of way is planned between Madera and Bakersfield as the first leg of a future State wide network.
The remarkable thing about the announcement for the selection of the Fresno-Bakersfield route for High Speed Rail was the lack of opposition in the San Joaquin Valley to this selection. This is the result of years of meetings and discussions with local residents to find the least objectionable route. In Bakersfield a major chunk of a new apartment complex will be condemned which the developer is not happy about and is planning to go to court over. The only serious opposition to High Speed Rail currently in the San Joaquin Valley is in Kings County around Hanford.
The opposition to the California High Speed Rail Project is well organized, funded and good at generating negative publicity. Two of the three major lawsuits against High Speed Rail are from Kings County. The plaintiffs in both Kings County lawsuits are the County of Kings, affected homeowner Aaron Fukuda and John Tos. Mr Tos is the lead plaintiff. He also owns 6 farms in Kings County which has a total population of about 151,000 and an unemployment rate typical of the San Joaquin Valley of 12.6 percent.
In September this year Mr. Tos addressed a public meeting held by the California High Speed Rail Authority. His comments started comparing the California High Speed Rail Project to the Holocaust of World War II. At that point Dan Richard, Chair of the California High Speed Authority stopped Mr. Tos and told him he was out of line with his comments. Mr Tos at that point backed down and apologized.
The great hope now for opponents of High Speed Rail is a lawsuit from Kings County. This lawsuit claims that the High Speed Rail Authority is out of compliance with the Prop 1A Bond measure which was approved by the voters. In August Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the 2011 Business Plan for California High Speed Rail was out of compliance with Prop 1A. The Judge held a hearing on November 8th to find a remedy to get California High Speed Rail in compliance with Prop 1A. The plaintiffs are seeking to have the entire project shut down by the judge which he didn’t do back in August.
At the hearing in Sacramento on November 8th as reported by the Fresno Bee the “judge asked Friday what would happen if he just throws out the financing arrangement altogether. The lawyer for the California High-Speed Rail Authority said the practical effect would basically be nothing.The lawyer for the plaintiffs who successfully challenged the funding plan generally agreed,”
Part of the problem with this lawsuit is it has taken so long to go to court that the 2011 HSR business plan which the suit is based has since been replaced by a greatly modified one last year. The argument for California High Speed Rail by the California Deputy Attorney General is that since the Legislature has approved both the new business plan and the issuing of some of the bonds for this project, only the Legislature can shut it down and suspend the bonds. The argument for this is based on years of precedence that the Legislature has final say in such matters.
As reported in the Fresno Bee the Deputy Attorney General said “Nothing practical happens,” as a result. She said the High-Speed Rail Authority “has an appropriation to build a project.” In response to another question from Kenny, she said the authority is not out of compliance with Proposition 1A, only that “there is a finding that certain of the reporting requirements were not satisfied.” As reported by the AP at this hearing the Deputy Attorney General was quoted “The taxpayers are represented through the legislative process,”
What was interesting were comments by the Lead Plaintiff, Kings County landowner John Tos as reported by the Fresno Bee “I would hope that we would kill the whole plan,” he said. “We have other issues we need to be spending our time and efforts and money (on), such as water. What good is a train going to do if we don’t have any water in this valley?”
It appears that Mr. Tos’s main concern isn’t the affect of construction of a new railroad on farmland. Instead it is opposition to anything that doesn’t insure plentiful water for the farms in the San Joaquin Valley. There is an old saying in the west among farmers and ranchers “That whiskey is for drinking, but water is for fighting over”. Farming now consumes 3 quarters of the water used in California. Not just California but most of the Western States are in a drought and have been for years. Urban areas of California are restricting water use and forcing conservation due to declining water supplies. Just to maintain current water use by farms in California will require diverting water from someone else. There is going to be an ongoing war over water for quite some time to come in the State.
While California continues to be the largest farm producing State in the Country, as a percentage of the entire State’s gross domestic product it is no more than 2 percent of the State’s economy. In the San Joaquin Valley farming and the farm owners dominates local politics. But most of the San Joaquin Valley is plagued by high unemployment and poverty. The impact of 6 billion dollars spent for High Speed Rail construction in just the next few years on the local economy will be significant. The greatest fear of many of the opponents of High Speed Rail may not that if would fail but that it will succeed.
Transportation is a major driver in economic growth. With High Speed Rail will come economic growth and economic diversity in the San Joaquin Valley. Such economic growth will come at the expense of the political clout of the farm owners in the Valley. This will no doubt make it harder for the farm owners to lobby for issues like maintaining the status quo on water supplies.