Bullet train to nowhere–the ultimate California boondoggle

Bullet train to nowhere–the ultimate California boondoggle–4.8.46h., b12-1

PART 1 OF 2

The controversial high-speed rail system that is supposed to connect California’s two largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisc0. via trains running 200 miles an hour. Around the time that the State’s voters approved the train in a 2008 referendum authorizing a $9.95 billion bond issue to help pay for it, its supporters had promised a completion date of 2018 for this “Phase 1” of a Still more ambitious high-speed rail network that would eventually hurtle Californians all the way from the state capitol, Sacramento, 95 miles northeast of San Francisco, to San Diego, near the Mexican border.

What I was to see consisted of a 1,600-foot viaduct spanning the  Fresno River on the rural outskirts of Madera, a rundown city of 63,000 in the heart of the state’s agriculturally rich but economically parched San Joaquin Valley—a landscape that is geographically, topographically, demographically. and culturally far away from the bustle of the two coastal metropolises that the train was supposed to be designed to serve.  The Fresno River viaduct is part of an initial 130 mile stretch of track through the valley that would allow passengers to travel from Madera, 164 miles southeast of San Francisco, to Bakersfield, 110 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Well, actually not quite all the way to Bakersfield, California’s ninth-largest city with a population of 364.000. but to the edge of an almond orchard on the fringes of Shafter, a sleepy farm town of 17,000 some 19 miles to the north. That was because the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) the autonomous state agency in charge of planning and building the train. didn’t have quite the money in its budget to take the train to downtown Bakersfield, and passengers bound for that city would presumably have to board a low speed connector bus to actually arrive there

The estimated date for completing this initial stretch was September 2017, the deadline for spending $3.5 billion in “stimulus” money from the Obama administration. Actually linking San Francisco and Los Angeles with a southerly terminus in Anaheim  on a total of 520 miles of track had been pushed out to the year 2022. Critics have dubbed the high-speed rail project the ‘train to nowhere,” and it was easy to see why.

53 percent of them approved the idea when it was on the state ballot in the November 2008 election.

Thanks to this near-universal hostility, the CHSRA has so far succeeded in acquiring only 60 percent of the 1,300 parcels of land that it needs just to run those 130 miles of track from Madera to Shafter. Meanwhile, polls conducted from 2013 to 2016 have consistency shown that at least 52 percent of Californians want the state to ditch the high-speed rail project entirely and use the 2008 bond  for something else, possibly for water storage or for beefing up conventional rail and public-transportation systems in the traffic clogged Los Angeles and Bay Area “bookends” of the projected bullet-train system.

Agriculture uses 40 percent of California’s water, so the drenching rains I encountered were welcome as a general proposition in the San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of California’s 450-mile-long Central Valley, a 60,000-square-mile plain running between the coastal mountain ranges to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east. But alongside the still mostly unbuilt rail viaduct, at this point just a handful of massive 25-foot concrete columns plus steel rebar cages, the pelting rain meant construction-site mud and plenty of it. Indeed, owing to the rain, work had already halted for the day when I arrived in a CHSRA-rented Jeep Grand Cherokee, accompanied by Toni Tinoco, public: information officer for the authority’s regional office in Fresno, and Michael Leongson one  of the five staff engineers assigned to this  part the project (the actual general contractor is Tutor Perini a Southern California entity that specializes in large-scale infrastructure). A lone hard-hatted workman sloshed through the ankle-deep mud to ask us what we were doing there, and Tinoco and Leongson duly pulled out their state ID badges. The workman advised us not even to try to get out of the Cherokee and into die sludge, so we drove a little farther up a slight incline behind the machinery where we could see the stout gray columns, flared at their rectilinear tops like the pillars of ancient Egyptian temples and displaying their own brand of engineering elegance, marching from the horizon down a grassy, empty landscape dotted here and there with eucalyptus trees to the river’s western embankment, and then beyond the river on the other side where the rail-bed would taper off to grade.

“The pedestals of those columns are 80 feet deep and 10 feet in diameter,” Leongson said. “They’ll support the deck for the train.” He explained that the viaduct was part of an elevation six or seven miles long that would enable he bullet train to swing high over not just the Fresno River but California Route 145, which runs through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. The 29-mile stretch from Madera to downtown Fresno to which Leongson was assigned was the very first phase of the high-speed rail’s construction, with two more phases contracted out to other private construction entities that would connect Fresno to that almond orchard near Bakersfield at the valley’s southeast end?”

“We broke ground in January 2015, and we’re 50 percent complete,” he said. The bullet train’s planned rail-bed for the valley roughly parallels two conventional diesel-powered freight lines.

Construction had begun only in June 2015, two years behind schedule and six months after a showy ground-breaking ceremony in Fresno in January 2015, presided over by the train’s biggest booster, maverick Democratic governor Brown Jr.  Concrete-pouring for the viaduct’s “deck”—the rail-bed itself—began in March this year.

Second project relatively minor in scope: demolishing an automobile overpass in downtown Fresno known as the Tuolumne Street Bridge. It allowed Union Pacific freight trains to run through the city cen¬ ter without disrupting street traffic but wasn’t high enough to accommodate a bullet train and its electrical superstructure. Replacing that bridge with a taller one is supposed to take “under a year,” Leongson said. Construction has also I recently begun on two other viaducts that will span two rivers south of Fresno.

It is undoubtedly unfair to perceive as metaphors the rain, the mud, the never-used equipment, and the solo unfinished viaduct over an isolated rural river in an agricultural valley more than a hundred miles from the heavily trafficked coastal corridor that connects Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The out-of-the way location of this first segment of construction was, by all accounts, the product of a political decision while the train was on the  drawing board during the 1990s, one that weighed the flat terrain plus a much touted economic boon to the jobs-starved valley, along with the fact that the valley is one of California’s less-populated areas, with relatively few NIMBY-minded residents expected to complain about blocked off streets and superfast trains whooshing through their neighborhoods at all hours of the day and night. The valley’s total population is only about 4 million, compared with 7 million for the San Francisco Bay Area and 19 million for greater Los Angeles. Many coastal Californians have never set foot in the valley, partly because its basin shape makes it the air-pollution capital of the state during the smoggy summer.

With the highest rates of unemployment in December 2015 were in the valley—including Madera (No. 12), Bakersfield (10), and Fresno (9)—all with jobless  rates in the double digits, compared with an overall U.S. unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.

Downtown Business Hub Fresno C A” in what looked like bitter irony: Practically the only operating “business” in evidence was a mega-church occupying a former movie theater and opera latte shop that closed in early afternoon—although across the street construction workers were busily building a condo complex that looked geared to New Urbanism dreams surrounding the high-speed rail station slated to be built nearby.

‘Every consultant and every engineering firm got hired, including Republicans. In the city of Fresno they like it, because they want the grade separation, and the property owners son are now 90-10 percent in favor. And why not? They all got together on those relocation fees—they’re really overpriced—and checks were written everywhere.” (CHSRA officials counter that the authority aims to pay fair compensation to all displaced owners.

It was on the farms and in the smaller town outside of  Fresno that nearly unanimous opposition to the bullet train appeared, along with widespread complaints that CHSRA’s compensation offers are far from adequate, reflecting what many residents regard as city-slicker disdain for agriculture and a lack of understanding of the value of agricultural land and the way it is used.

The Sacramento Valley, yield around 300 different  crops, about a quarter of the fruits  and vegetables grown in the United States. There was widespread suspicion among valley residents that one of the ultimate goals in routing the bullet train through there was to develop the vast fields into low-cost commuter subdivisions for Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, essentially terminating the valley’s agricultural viability.

Hanford’s downtown already houses an Amtrak passenger station and a Union Pacific freight line along whose ties the engine horns moan day and night. The country roads were sprinkled with handmade protest billboards: “Dams Not Trains.”

One of the things that infuriated him most, he said, was the rail authority’s assumption that farmland is essentially empty land, and that 100-foot-wide diagonal corridor through the farms of the western valley would be minimally disruptive.

And so will the projected bullet train, which roughly parallels the BNSF and Union Pacific tracks. But  the towns, cities, and farms in the valley are laid out more or less on a strict north-south-east-west compass grid that dates to the 19th century, as if one were in Kansas.

Tos drove me to the 160 acres of almond trees, bare-branched in early January. where the CHSRA plans to plant a four-leaf-clover overpass. He pointed out a sprinkler-irrigation system running through the rows of trees that would be destroyed (along with a pump-driven well) because “they’re going through the fields diagonally. Almond  trees don’t bear fruit  about four years after they are planted, and they stop producing and must be replaced after a maximum of 25 years. Adjacent to his almond orchard Tos pointed to a neighbor’s cherry orchard. “A full one-fourth of this will be blocked,” he said. “There will be no access by road” to that part of the orchard because the bullet-train’s projected route would seal off part of the existing road-grid.

Tos said that he and other valley farmers have long urged the CHSRA to move the planned bullet-train line some 30 miles to the west of Hanford to run alongside Interstate 5, whose landscape is genuinely barren, whose local economy is pretty much restricted to cattle-ranching, and whose population is relatively tiny, owing to a general lack of water.

CHSRA officials counter that Interstate 5 runs parallel to the San Andreas Fault, the mother of nearly all California earthquakes, and thus isn’t a suitable location for a high-speed train. And of course Interstate 5 is a full  50 miles west of Fresno and its hopes for a train-centric urban renewal.

The gist of our conversation pointed to reasons why the rail authority has had such trouble persuading rural property owners in the valley to agree to turn over their property voluntarily and  why so many of those owners believe that the authority has no understanding of —and may even have contempt for— how people in rural California actually live.

The CHSRA’s on-the-spot appraisal of their existing house was only .$300,000, plus relocation costs up to a total of $490,000. “They told us, Your house isn’t worth it,'” Gomez said.

Gomez added. the CHSRA had brought up, on at least two occasions the topic of a Resolution of  Necessity—an official declaration that is a prelude to an eminent-domain lawsuit in which she and her husband would have to hire lawyers and a judge would decide the value of their home, possibly at far less than it would be sold by arms-length negotiation. “That’s just flat-out bullying,” Gomez said.

The general resentment of the bullet train in the valley was so intense that I wondered to CHSRA spokesman Toni Tinoco if there were any farmers who actually supported the train’s encroachment upon their properties.

Nearly every almond eaten in the United States comes from the valley, and Asian demand has turned those tasty nuts into California’s most remunerative agricultural export.

The authority also planned to remove and store his displaced topsoil during the construction process and replace any damaged parts of his irrigation system. To Johns, the bullet train represented a welcome chance for rural dwellers to sample city life without spending hours on the road. “This is a great thing,” he said. “I can go up to San Francisco in an hour and 15 minutes and see my boy up there.”

The year 2008, when California’s voters approved Proposition 1 A, was more of a culmination than a starting point.

source–weekly std, charlotte allen, chsra, jon coupal, howard jarvis taxpayers assos., michael kenny, elizabeth alexis, aaron fukuda, citizens for high speed rail accountability, diana gomez, joel fajardo, patty lopez, ralph vartabedian, parsons brinckerhoff, the hill, dan richard,

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