Vicente Ward had trouble finding work after leaving the Air Force — until California’s bullet-train project came along. Now he’s helping build a bridge that some day will carry rail passengers across the San Joaquin River between Madera and Fresno.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment; my kids can see this 20 years from now,” said Ward, 52, a carpenter from Clovis, during a break at the job site. “It’s providing jobs for the community. We help stimulate the economy. ... Now my family has medical, has dental.”
Phase One of the state’s high-speed rail line is being assembled, piece by painstaking piece, along a 119-mile stretch between Madera and northern Kern County. A decade after getting approval from California voters, and nearly four years after breaking ground, one of the largest public works projects in California history is taking on a life of its own: Bridges, viaducts and overpasses have sprouted on fertile San Joaquin Valley soil. A section of Highway 99 has been relocated. Work has begun on an enormous trench in Fresno where trains will run beneath an irrigation canal.
More than 2,300 workers have been put to work at more than 20 different sites around the Valley. Eventually $10.6 billion will be spent on the Valley portion of the project, fueling dreams of an economic bounty in one of the poorest regions of California. Community leaders envision Fresno, with its relatively low cost of living, becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley — which will be less than an hour’s ride away once the train is running.
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“We’ve got a lot of things to sell that Silicon Valley can’t provide,” said Tom Richards, a Fresno developer and vice chairman of the rail project’s governing authority.
Yet for all the dollars and dreams chugging into the Valley, the high-speed rail project is notoriously unpopular around here. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll earlier this year showed that 64 percent of Valley residents want the bullet train halted in its tracks. Statewide, 49 percent want to pull the plug.
The opposition in the Valley is partly philosophical. Many in this hotbed of conservatism see the bullet train – beset with lengthy delays, substantial cost overruns and serious questions about future funding – as big government run amok.
But for many Valley residents, it’s also intensely personal. They resent how construction has carved up their farms and scrambled their highways. Completion of just a partial segment through the Valley is still years away, and residents doubt the project will ever get finished. They question the promises that high-speed rail will lift the Valley out of its economic doldrums.
“Let’s fix our roads and bridges – anything but high-speed rail,” said John Tos, a Kings County farmer who’s tried unsuccessfully to keep the California High-Speed Rail Authority from taking a portion of his walnut orchard. “It’s unbelievable the cost we’re going to have to pay.”
Meanwhile, advocates for low-income residents warn that the very thing train boosters are promising — trainloads of Bay Area techies moving to the Valley — will lead to gentrification and a nightmarish spike in housing prices. The Central Valley is already facing a long list of issues, including poor air quality, a lack of affordable housing and contaminated water, and social justice advocates are worried Valley residents will be left behind by any progress created by the bullet train.
“We’re concerned that one of high speed rail’s major goals is to address a lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area,” said Veronica Garibay, a co-founder and co-director of the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “How are families already living in the Valley today going to benefit from all of this? (High speed rail) is just one small component of the pressures that are facing and are going to face this region.”
Billions in overruns
As much as any other criticism, the project’s finances feed the narrative that the project is off the rails. The estimated cost to construct the main line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, pegged at $35 billion in 2009, has ballooned to $77.3 billion, according to the latest business plan by the High-Speed Rail Authority. The figure includes the initial segment through the Valley, which is estimated at $10.6 billion.
That leaves a funding gap in the billions of dollars. Although the authority says it has money identified to build most of the segment in the Central Valley, there is not enough solid funding to extend the line to the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles. The authority also hasn’t established a budget for constructing a spur that would connect the Valley segment with Sacramento, Modesto and Stockton.
During a town hall forum in Fresno earlier this month, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom expressed frustration with the project and said he was “assessing the stewardship of the High Speed Rail Authority.” He said he was also reviewing a recent report by State Auditor Elaine Howle saying the rail authority created $600 million in cost overruns by beginning construction in the Valley before it had finished some vital planning.
Funding has always been an issue. Voters authorized less than $10 billion in bond proceeds for the project nearly a decade ago. Along with federal grants and revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade carbon program, the authority thinks it will have $28 billion at its disposal over the next 30 years. That includes more than $4 billion already spent.
“We haven’t been shy about the fact that this project was never fully funded,” said authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley.
The authority’s plan is to get the train operating on a limited basis sometime over the next decade – a milestone that it believes will convince private investors to jump in and bankroll the rest of the project. Alley said the High-Speed Rail Authority has always known it would have to get private dollars to finish the job; similar financing models have been used to build bullet trains around the world.
But authority officials recognize there’s cause for skepticism from the public.
“Funding isn’t fully defined, and people have justifiable concerns,” said Richards, the rail authority vice chairman.
A series of stumbles by the High-Speed Rail Authority hasn’t helped its case with Valley residents. The cost of building the Valley segment jumped by a third, or $2.8 billion, earlier this year. The land acquisition costs alone in the Valley have risen by $700 million.
Fix the roads instead?
It was a glorious day in downtown Fresno. On Jan. 6, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown and his wife Anne Gust Brown, accompanied by federal officials and city leaders, held a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site of the planned high-speed rail station.
The governor acknowledged the project faced enormous challenges, including the question of funding.
“Don’t worry about it,” he told about 1,000 dignitaries. “We’re going to get it.”
High-speed rail was sold to California voters as a technological dream – a means of traveling from San Francisco to L.A. in less than three hours. California would have a modern, electrified transportation conveyance on par with the bullet trains that have been zipping across Europe for years.
There was something else: High-speed rail would bring the Valley, in particular, into the modern age, connecting its downtrodden residents with jobs and economic opportunity that until now could only be found in California’s coastal cities.
“From the very beginning, for me it was about connectivity for the Valley,” said Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “It’s always been an issue for people doing business.” Fresno’s unemployment rate, at 6.3 percent, is considerably higher than the statewide rate of 4.1 percent.
But there have been critics, and problems, from the start. As Brown spoke at the groundbreaking, the jeers of a small cluster of protestors were clearly audible: “We don’t want your train!”
Opposition to high-speed rail springs from many sources. Many Valley residents say the bullet train’s funds would be better spent fixing Highway 99 and other crumbling roads. Better yet, the money could be used building more reservoirs to store water for the region’s parched farms; billboards sporting the slogan “Dams not Trains” abound.
Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin – a long-time supporter of the rail project – called pitting high-speed rail against other needs in the Valley a “false narrative.”
“As mayor, my interest was that in one of the most economically devastated regions of the state, you cannot say, ‘We just want more water,’ or ‘We just want more roads’ or ‘We just want more education,’” she said. “It’s a false choice, and it’s intellectually dishonest. We need all of the above.”
Delays have been considerable. Richards said the project probably spent a year dealing with lawsuits filed by opponents under California’s onerous environmental law. The authority has also had to fend off litigation challenging the constitutionality of its funding mechanism, and lawsuits over the route itself. A church in Bakersfield sued to prevent the rail line from going right past its property; the state agreed to mitigate noise impacts.
Some low-income residents living near the bullet train’s path doubt they’ll benefit from the project.
About 30 residents of the Three Palms Mobile Home and RV Park gathered in the neighborhood’s parking lot on an autumn evening to talk about their disdain for the rail line, which will one day run about 200 feet from where they snacked on chips and drank bottled water.
A row of rundown motels nearby was torn down to make way for the rail project, but the mobile home park remains. While high-speed rail is seen as a way to connect the Valley with the rest of California, it will have the opposite impact on the residents of Three Palms: they will be surrounded on one side by bullet trains and on the other by Highway 99. Some residents already walk across freight train tracks to get to the closest grocery store, a journey that will be even more dangerous when high-speed trains are rolling through the area.
“What about us?” said Wendy Monge, who’s lived in the mobile home park for 13 years. “All this stuff around is getting renewed, but we’re here being left behind.”
‘Run right over us’
Some opponents believe the Valley is being taken advantage of by the project.
The train started in the Valley “because it’s the easiest place to run right over us, spend money as they want, fall short of completion and say they’ve done us a favor,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. “We’re in the middle of it, we know the details of it, we see what’s going on, we get concerned that this is not going to be a completed project. Sooner or later they’re going to run out of money.”
Fans of high-speed rail in the Valley are getting a little anxious. They want it to succeed, but they fear that progress has been too slow.
“I clearly see the benefits of it but I get where people are worried,” said Jim Ford, chief executive of Central Valley Community Bank in Fresno. He said the High-Speed Rail Authority needs “to get something done and get some sort of train moving … to get people to understand why there’s some benefit.”
But there are no quick solutions. Six years ago, the authority said it would have trains running in the Valley by 2020. Now the best-case scenario calls for operations to begin in 2026 or 2027 – and that’s only if the agency can show that the trains can run without a cash subsidy. Under the terms of Proposition 1A, the operation must pay for itself.
Opening by 2026 or 2027 “is an aspirational goal,” Alley said.
The authority’s approach to construction isn’t helping tamp down the skepticism. Instead of building road beds and laying tracks first, it’s tackling the hardest parts of the project up front: the overpasses, bridges and viaducts, each of which take months to complete.
“You’ve got to take care of the most complex construction areas first,” Richards said, adding that the project would “probably make a bigger splash” with the public if it had laid tracks already.
In rural areas, where orchards are being cleared to make way for the rail line, opposition continues to simmer. Farmers are finding their farms getting carved up, their irrigation lines disrupted.
“There are all these triangular pieces (of land) left over,” said Mark Wasser, a Sacramento lawyer who represents several dozen Valley farmers fighting the state in court over land acquisitions.
The state has the power under eminent domain laws to take property for a public works project, but the process has played out more slowly than state officials expected and has left considerable rancor.
Tos, the farmer in Kings County, remembers getting the initial notice in 2010 from the state warning that he could lose some property to the rail line. Since then he’s become one of the most active opponents of the project, attending scores of community meetings and lending his name to a pair of lawsuits challenging the funding for the project (Both lawsuits failed).
In the last year or so, the fight has turned intensely personal. In May 2017, two years after eminent domain proceeds began, the state was granted possession of a two-acre swath of one of Tos’ walnut orchards outside of Hanford.
Although Tos hasn’t agreed to the state’s offer of $153,000 and the case is continuing, the land has been taken. About six months ago the trees were removed.
“They’re killing our trees, something that you’ve strived for,” said Tos, who was present when the trees were pulled out of the ground.
All told, he said the state is trying to take about 80 acres of land he farms in Kings and Fresno counties.
Although the deck is stacked against him legally, he’s vowed to fight the state for every inch.
“My grandparents came here in 1906,” he said. “Our fourth generation is farming it right now. We’re not in this for the money. We’re in this to keep our land.”