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Central Valley farmers take issue with proposed high-speed rail route

Officials hope to get the bullet train's first phase underway soon, both to create jobs in the hard-hit region and to secure federal funds. But bypassing towns means cutting through agricultural land.

December 27, 2010|By Rich Connell, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Hanford, Calif. — Crunching through fallen leaves in a sprawling walnut grove, John Tos frets about the high-speed railroad headed his way.

He gets why many in this part of the Central Valley are excited about a construction project that could mean tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity. But a newly selected route cleaves through prime cropland his family has farmed for 94 years. Fields would be split, complex irrigation systems disrupted and operations complicated, says the grower with a graying Abe Lincoln beard.

"Ag and this train don't get along at all," he says.

Down the road at the Kings County job center, Zach Godinho is at the computer looking for work. Unemployment is a chronic problem in this region, running 30% to 40% higher than the state average. "It's like a deflated balloon," says the 29-year-old former grocery cashier and part-time high school tutor, who's been searching for full-time work for three months. If a bullet train can bring jobs, he says, "I'm all for it."

Jump-starting a decades-old dream of a vast statewide bullet train network was supposed to be relatively easy in California's rural heartland, given widespread official support and largely open, flat terrain. It would not only bring federally funded construction jobs, it would eventually draw the region closer to the sights and services of distant state population centers.

But with rail officials looking to turn dirt here within two years on the first $5.5 billion of track, they are encountering the same sort of clashing demands that have made selecting routes through Los Angeles and the Bay Area potential quagmires.

Some Central Valley communities are lobbying to steer the route around their towns, citing noise, vibration, aesthetics and loss of existing businesses. "We are rural Americana," says Ron Hoggard, city manager of Corcoran, which has pumped millions into revitalizing its business district. "What we don't want is an elevated graffiti mural running through town."

The prospect of shifting to agricultural land, however, is raising the ire of influential growers and their allies. Some hint at legal action.

"You're basically naming ag land as the path of least resistance," says Diana Peck, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. "We are not going to stand for that."

Voices of opposition

For months, the high-speed rail debate has swirled around the county seat of Hanford, a historic railroad town about 30 miles south of Fresno. The Southern Pacific Railway put Hanford on the map 123 years ago. Moaning train horns still drift across the city day and night from the downtown tracks. And a state landmark here commemorates an 1880 shootout involving a land dispute between the railroad and local ranchers.

The new era of rail development is stirring passions again. After bullet train surveyors started asking to scope out farmland earlier this year, objections from growers intensified.

Trying to quell the unrest, the California High-Speed Rail Authority drafted alternative routes that would follow the existing tracks through Hanford. That upset the City Council, which said the plans were too disruptive in a downtown that promotes tours of its carefully preserved century-old buildings. At one point, Hanford threatened to bar rail representatives from stepping on city property. "We were very much against that" route, says City Manager Hilary M. Straus.

By September, the only option left bowed east of Hanford into the nut and fruit groves Tos and his neighbors farm. Running a finger along an aerial map at his office, Tos shows how ground-level tracks and elevated viaducts would arc through squared-off farm fields at odd angles. "We've got all these parcels just the way we want them," he says. "When you go diagonally through there, it just destroys" them.

Farm groups up and down the Valley are voicing similar complaints. Some of their allies, including the Kings County Board of Supervisors, have called for the train to stick to established routes, notably Highway 99. But that option was ruled out because of high construction costs and uncertainty about cooperation from Union Pacific, which controls tracks near the road.

One problem for farmers, says Manuel Cunha, president of the 1,100-member Nisei Farmers League, is that rail officials are racing to start construction so they can secure billions in federal stimulus cash. But farmers are still in the dark about what would happen to them, he said.

Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall says the agency is listening. "All these things are being addressed" in environmental reviews, she says. Decisions on route refinements and some city bypass options will be made over the coming year. Ultimately, the train will need to clear a 100- to 120-foot path or about 12 acres per mile through agricultural areas, she says. Landowners would be "entitled to proper compensation" for acreage taken, she notes.

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