Sacramento came to Merced on Friday, as a special, joint hearing of the State Senate Agriculture Committee and the Transportation and Housing Committee allowed farmers to voice concerns about the High-Speed Rail project which threatens to slash farms in two.
The initial, $6 billion, 120-mile segment from Bakersfield to Merced County is intended as a test bed for the 220 mile-per-hour High Speed Trains in America. Upon completion, the 800-mile long system would connect San Francisco to San Diego with numerous stops along the way, offering passenger fares at about 80 to 90 percent of the cost of air travel.
But, should the complete route not be built, the initial segment could devastate farms with no long-term benefit, leaving Valley farmers feeling like guinea pigs.
“We’re trying to find a good policy here,” said State Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), a rice farmer. “... We’re looking for constructive ways of dealing with this.”
Ag impacts minimized, CHSRA says
Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, said he welcomed the meeting as a chance to dispel inaccuracies or misconceptions about High Speed Rail.
“We are focused on ag and the ag community, but maybe not enough,” van Ark said.
The project would take about 4,000 acres of ag land between Merced and Bakersfield. That amounts to less than one-hundredth of one percent of Central Valley ag land, and would require removing less ag land from production than constructing additional lanes for Highway 99.
“You will have impacts,” van Ark said. “It’s just the matter of how we deal with the impacts that’s important.”
Van Ark said the CHSRA had already agreed to realign routes through Fresno and Kings counties, approved a six-mile detour through Kings County to avoid ag mitigation land, and okayed a 10-mile jog into a former lake bed in Tulare, all to minimize impacts on farming and dairy operations. In the Merced and Fresno area, van Ark said the CHSRA will reexamine a route along Highway 152 at farmers’ requests, and abandoned one route alternative unpopular with farmers despite its environmental positives, fighting the Environmental Protection Agency to do so.
Although late in the process, the group is also forming an agricultural committee to consult on routes.
“A lot has been done,” van Ark said. “Whether enough has been done is always the question”
Farmers’ livelihoods at stake
Concerns still remain, with some routes dividing farms in two, or even running right through a notoriously hard-to permit rendering plant.
The CHSRA says all landowners would be compensated at fair market value for their land, and for any damages to their remaining property or ability to conduct farming operations. The CHSRA would also fix any irrigation systems affected by the rail line, and “do what it can” to mitigate effects.
That could become costly, according to Holly King, a Kern County farmer. A row crop farmer, she estimates the costs in loss of land, revenue from farming, and a massive redesign to her irrigation system would tally $311,000 per acre – not to mention fuel costs from needing to make a five-mile detour to the nearest crossing just to access both sides of her property.
“If we aren’t compensated, we farmers will be subsidizing this project,” King said.
Dennis Arreas, a dairyman from Los Banos, told a similar tale. One rail alignment would split his 340 acres in half, go straight through one facility, and transform a half-mile jaunt to the silage field into a 3.5 mile trip.
“It’s going to take our farm right off the map and make it to where my boys will not be able to operate,” Arreas said.
Speakers raised numerous other concerns with the plan, from its impacts on rail-side feed mills to ag lenders who may see property values fall precipitously due to trains affecting operations. Many water districts have yet to be contacted by the CHSRA, despite the rail’s impacts.
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