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Bullet Train to Nowhere?

California High Speed Rail Threatens Irreplaceable Farmland

After nearly a decade of planning for a high speed “bullet” train from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area, serious questions are being raised about its business model, cost and impact on the environment—including the incomparable and irreplaceable farmland it threatens in the state’s San Joaquin Valley. The government authority responsible for the project has thus far managed to deflect criticism, saying that the impacts of the $40 billion system would be addressed as plans became more specific. But the day of reckoning seems to have arrived with the decision on a right-of-way and the release of an environmental impact report on the project.

Dirt road along farmland in CaliforniaAmong the other impacts of the project, the right-of-way will seize thousands of acres of prime farmland while hundreds of farms will be cut in half by train tracks protected by high fences that have been likened to the Great Wall of China. Some fields will be rendered un-farmable, irrigation systems will have to be reconfigured at great cost and farmers will have to drive their equipment miles to the closest overpass just to reach fields on the other side of the fence. The loss to California agriculture could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Perhaps even more problematic is the potential for the high-speed rail system to create more urban sprawl that will develop hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in California’s premier agricultural region. The train, travelling at more than 200 MPH, will make it possible for people to commute from anywhere in the San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles or San Francisco in an hour and a half. The rail authority denies that this will bring more people to the valley. At the same time, it claims that any new residents will want to live downtown, close to the high-speed rail stations, rather than in far-flung suburbs or on “ranchettes” in the country.

The recent history of development in the San Joaquin Valley calls these claims into question. Much of the sprawl that has occurred there in the past decade was the result of two trends. First, skyrocketing housing prices in the Bay Area and Southern California prompted tens of thousands of people to relocate to the valley. (While home prices have declined significantly due to the bursting of the housing bubble, the valley remains a considerably cheaper place to live than the coastal communities.) Second, land use policies of valley cities and counties have permitted development to consume an acre of farmland for every eight new residents. (Think of two four-person touch football teams playing on a one-acre gridiron and you’ll get an idea of how spread out that is.) Moreover, one quarter of all land devoted to non-agricultural use in the valley consists of rural residential estates that average five acres, which are a visible misuse of farmland.

The catalyst for growing opposition to the rail system was the announcement that the first section of track will be laid in the most remote, i.e. most intensively agricultural, part of the San Joaquin Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield. This area is not heavily travelled and, unless the full system is built, this $4 billion first segment would have no use at all: a bullet train to nowhere. Critics suspect that the decision was motivated by the belief of rail authority leaders that little opposition would materialize in such a remote area. But if that was the hope, it was dashed when hundreds of farmers and others turned out at public meetings in Kings County to protest both the choice of the right-of-way and the treatment they received from the rail authority.

American Farmland Trust was among those invited to testify at an earlier hearing on the high-speed rail system. California Policy Consultant Serena Unger told a state legislative committee that American Farmland Trust supports high-speed rail only if it’s done right. The rail authority, she said, should set aside funds to help farmers cope with the impact of the right-of-way and to mitigate the loss of farmland. She also called upon the state to negotiate a compact between the rail authority and local governments under which the latter would commit to promoting urban infill development and tightening land use policies to reduce the amount of farmland that could be lost to suburban sprawl and rural residential development.

American Farmland Trust