California's High-Speed Rail on Track to Open in 80 Years

California's High-Speed Rail on Track to Open in 80 Years

Six years after the controversial California High-Speed Rail Authority was approved by the California Legislature, just 7% of the estimated 1,100 pieces needed for the first leg to travel 130 miles across sparsely populated Central California farm country has been acquired. At this rate, it will take another 80 years before construction can start.

Because California has had a horrible record of starting and then later abandoning freeways, power plants and other highly expensive infrastructure projects, the California Legislature was forced to add a series of provisions when it passed AB 3034 to ensure the train did not get partially built and then become a “stranded investment.”

Those provisions required that the train must have “sustained revenue,” and travel at operating speeds of at least 200 miles per hour in a “usable segment” between at least two stations. But rather than using the extensive freight train tracks that crisscross California, state planners decided to build their own dedicated tracks.

State planners knew that the most difficult sections to complete of the approximately 381 mile long project would be crossing the 7,680-foot-high Tehachapi Mountain range and tearing up huge swaths of the densely populated Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin, so planners picked the flattest, straightest and most desolate area for the first segment.

The High-Speed Rail Authority budgeted $766 million for property acquisition along this initial stretch of track. But of the 822 parcels the state has tried to buy between Madera and Bakersfield, it has only been successful in acquiring 106. With farmers refusing to accept what planners call a “fair value” for property, the state has been forced to go to court to court to take 36 properties through eminent domain proceedings.

Owners of six of those parcels have since settled with the state, but 30 remain outstanding. Ten cases are pending in courthouses in Fresno and Madera counties, but none have gone to trial yet, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.

One of the more complicated issues in the lawsuits is the requirement under California law that high-speed rail must qualify as a compelling “public interest” to use eminent domain, according to Nadia Niak, a founder of Californians for Responsible Rail Design.

But the high speed rail funding may also be in trouble since opponents in September filed a lawsuit claiming the project violates the voter approved Proposition 1A $9.9 billion bond measure because it failed to identify realistic sources for all of the money needed to build its “initial operating segment” from Merced to Los Angeles.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny had ruled last fall that the state’s preliminary funding plan for the rail system violated Prop. 1A. The Judge also ruled that the plan required the authority to have certified environmental clearances for all portions of the Merced-Los Angeles route before beginning construction along the line. But a three-judge panel of the 3rd District court in Sacramento overturned Kenny’s rulings in an opinion issued July 31.

It was initially estimated that the Madera-Bakersfield link would cost about $6 billion to complete. But that assumed smooth sailing.  The rail authority has only certified its environmental approvals for two Valley segments, but at least six lawsuits have been filed challenging the agency’s approval in May of the Fresno-Bakersfield section, according to the Fresno Bee.

California’s high speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco may become a reality someday. But if the first link across some of the state’s flattest and least populated is on track to take 80 years, that “someday” seems a long way off.

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