Community takes bullet to the heart

Fresno property owners unhappy with prices offered for land needed for high-speed rail project
Associated Press
Oct 21, 2013

Work begins on Calif. bullet train, locals angry
JULIET WILLIAMS, Associated Press

FRESNO, California (AP) — Trucks loaded with tomatoes, milk and almonds clog the two main highways that bisect California's farm heartland, carrying goods to millions along the Pacific Coast and beyond. This dusty stretch of land is the starting point for one of the most expensive U.S. public infrastructure projects: a $68 billion high-speed rail system that would span the state, linking the people of America's salad bowl to more jobs, opportunity and buyers.

Five years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the idea of bringing a bullet train to the most populous U.S. state. It would be America's first high-speed rail system, sold to the public as a way to improve access to good-paying jobs, cut pollution from smog-filled roadways and reduce time wasted sitting in traffic while providing an alternative to high fuel prices.

Now, engineering work has finally begun on the first 30-mile (48-kilometer) segment of track here in Fresno, a city of a half-million people with soaring unemployment and a withering downtown core littered with abandoned factories and shuttered stores.

Rail is meant to help Fresno, with construction jobs now and improved access to economic opportunity once the project is finished. But the region that could benefit most from the project is also where opposition to it has grown most fierce.

"I just wish it would go away, this high-speed rail. I just wish it would go away," says Gary Lanfranco, whose restaurant in downtown Fresno is slated to be demolished to make way for rerouted traffic.

Such sentiments can be heard throughout the Central Valley, where roads are dotted with signs such as: "HERE COMES HIGH SPEED RAIL There goes the farm." Growers complain of misplaced priorities, and residents wonder if their tax money is being squandered.

Aaron Fukuda, a civil engineer whose house in the dairy town of Hanford lies directly in one of the possible train routes, says: "People are worn out, tired, frustrated."

Voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds to start construction on an 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) rail line to ferry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, compared with 6 hours by car now during good traffic. Since then, the housing market collapsed, multibillion-dollar budget deficits followed, and the price tag has fluctuated wildly — from $45 billion in 2008 to more than $100 billion in 2011 and, now, $68 billion.

Political and financial compromises led officials to scale back plans that now mean trains will be forced to slow down and share tracks in major cities, leading critics to question whether it will truly be the 220-mph (355-kph) "high-speed rail" voters were promised.

The high-speed rail business plan says trains will run between the greater Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay Area by 2029. But construction has been postponed repeatedly, and a court victory this summer by opponents threatens further delays; a Sacramento County Superior Court judge said the state rail authority's plan goes against the promise made to voters to identify all the funding for the first segment before starting construction.

Even the former chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Quentin Kopp, has turned against the current project, saying in court papers that it "is no longer a genuine high speed rail system."

In the Central Valley, there is intense distrust of the authority, which has started buying up property, land and businesses, some of which have been in families for generations.

At the dimly lit Cosmopolitan Cafe, office workers line up alongside farmers and paramedics to order sandwiches as waitresses expeditiously call out order numbers. Four decades' worth of memorabilia and yellowing newspaper restaurant reviews line the faux-wood walls in the space that Lanfranco has owned for most of his life.

Lanfranco says the sum he was offered to buy the property does not come close to replacing the space he owns, debt-free. The adjacent parking lot — a rare commodity — is packed with pickup trucks and cars each day at lunchtime. Lanfranco declined to say how much he was offered, and the offers are not public record.

"It's not like it's just a restaurant that I've owned for a couple of years and now I can just go replace it. It's something that I've put the last 45 years of my life into," the 66-year-old says.

His is just one of hundreds of properties the state needs to buy for the rail project or seize through eminent domain if they cannot reach a deal. Many owners are resentful after years of what they say have been confusing messages and misleading information.

Rail officials acknowledge that the agency hasn't always communicated with those most affected by the project, and part of their work in the Central Valley is strictly public relations.

"Frankly, it set us back, because we, in effect, created questions and even opposition by just failing to give people answers," says Jeff Morales, the authority's chief executive officer since 2012.

For supporters, high-speed rail is the solution to California's future transportation needs, when the state's already jammed, rutted highways and busy airports won't be enough for a population expected to hit 46 million by 2035.

It will create hundreds of good-paying jobs for several years as officials tear down buildings, draw engineering plans, survey wildlife and, eventually, lay track. It will also help move the Central Valley beyond the dominant low-wage agriculture sector, Morales says.

"By connecting Fresno, Bakersfield and the other cities of the Central Valley to Los Angeles and San Francisco ... it just creates more opportunities for people," he says. "It creates a whole different sort of economy that'll just raise the Central Valley."

Gov. Jerry Brown calls rail "cheaper than the alternative, and it's a hell of a lot better." The project also offers the 75-year-old Democrat a chance at a legacy. What is less certain is what the legacy will be, and whether high-speed rail will ever be what was once promised. Critics say the ridership projections are inflated and rely on low ticket prices that would require government subsidies, although the federal Government Accountability Office has called them reasonable.

The Obama administration promised $3.2 billion for the first phase as part of the federal stimulus package, but that is just a fraction of the money needed to complete the system, leaving many of the valley's 6.5 million residents to suspect California taxpayers will be on the hook for the rest. The state's independent analyst calls current funding plans "highly speculative."

Republicans in Congress have furiously fought to block any more federal funding as Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have backed out of plans for high-speed rail in those states.

Fukuda is among the residents who are suing to try to block California's rail line. He and his wife had planned to build their dream house on their Hanford property. At first he planned to build sound barriers, but then he says he lost faith in the planners.

"I don't think it's a viable, well thought-out or ... financially feasible project for the state of California," he says.

It is rare to find someone in Hanford, a town of 55,000 people south of Fresno, who is not opposed to the project. Many landowners have been in financial limbo for years as the authority weighs different paths for the train, leaving farmers wary of planting crops or investing in new equipment in case their land ends up being gobbled up.

Officials, Fukuda says, "don't understand the emotional toll this has taken on the community."



Eph 2 8-10

Perhaps the SR should concentrate on posting local stories rather than those 2500 miles away that have no affect on the Sandusky area.


FYI: Rep. Kaptur and former Gov. Strickland among others wanted a similar expensive taxpayer financed boondoggle for OH.

The Bizness

Ahh yes, a boondoggle...

Rather than spending money for some temporary jobs from the XL pipeline, we could have added thousands of permanent jobs by creating high speed rail corridors across the Midwest. Oil obsessed conservatives decided that, that just wasn't a good idea so threw away those thousands of permanent jobs.

Imagine hopping on a train in Sandusky and getting to Cleveland or Toledo in 30 Minutes, Chicago in 2 hours, Driving to Mansfield and getting to Cincinnati in 1.5 Hours. Sounds horrible doesn't it? It would save you time, and money....Horrible, I know.


Re: "we could have added thousands of permanent jobs by creating high speed rail corridors across the Midwest."

Wishful thinking.

With the cost overruns and property rights disputes, it would end up being another boondoggle like Amtrak that is supported by taxpayer dollars to the tune of $1B annually.

"XL pipeline"?

Though it increases costs, private industry has done an end run around govt. by transporting the oil sand production by rail.

For one, Pres. Obama's buddy, Warren Buffett profits from it not being built.

The Bizness

Amtrak is a valuable service to many...far from a boondoggle

I do not know Warren Buffet nor care about Warren Buffet, so why even mention that? I solely want everyone to understand how horrid tar sands are on the environment. It uses a ton of energy just to extract the oil from the ground.

We need to move away from fossil fuels fast.

I should also add that I understand Amtrak runs on fossil fuels but taking cars off the road and moving people to transportation by rail would help move away from the use of fossil fuel.


Re: "Amtrak is a valuable service to many...far from a boondoggle"

It's a money pit and unprofitable.

It's essentially a govt. jobs program.

How many times have you used it?

YOU brought up XL, I just added some context.

The Bizness

I have used it twice(it was packed both times, and enjoyable.), and I have a trip planned this winter to use it.


Re: "I have used it twice,"

Happy for you.

However, it remains unprofitable and the service heavily taxpayer subsidized.

Trust me, I got my fill of trains riding the "L" for yrs. in Chicago.

It's unfortunate that there are those who want to destroy entire manufacturing industries like automotive & oil along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs that they provide for some central planning Statist boondoggle.

I mean, other than Democrat voters, what the h*ll did Pres. Obama “save” Detroit for?

If high-speed rail were a practical idea, private developers and venture capitalists would be in the forefront.

Dr. Information

Bizz, how can something that was touted as going to be profitable (Amtrack) that instantly turned out to be a tax payer subsidy not a complete government mess up?

The Bizness

I didn't know it was supposed to be profitable, rather just an alternative form of transportation for travel between major cities.


Re: "I didn't know it was supposed to be profitable,"

Never have the govt. build you a house. All plumbing fixtures would leak.

Licorice Schtick

"The General Motors streetcar conspiracy (also known as the Great American streetcar scandal) refers to allegations and convictions in relation to a program by General Motors (GM) and other companies who purchased and then dismantled streetcar and electric train systems in many American cities."


Re "The General Motors streetcar conspiracy?"

Which means WHAT in relation to the TOPIC?

Instead of merely posting a quote and links, doncha think that a little "personal" commentary 'might' be in order?

Peninsula Pundit

'If high-speed rail were a practical idea, private developers and venture capitalists would be in the forefront.'
Is that so?
How much private money was spent building the interstate highway system?


Re: "interstate highway system,"

You do know that it is patterned after the German Autobahn and was/is a Defense project right?

I thought the subject was mass transit and you confusingly wanna argue for more and better roads for use by private vehicles?

Licorice Schtick

Tell ya what - I'll most more "'personal' commentary" if you post less.

All in favor? ....

The Bizness



Licorice Schtick writes: "I'll most more 'personal' commentary'"

It's a deal, I'll "most" less, whatevertheh*ll that is. :)

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

I respectfully disagree, Biz. While the idea seemed good, I am sure there are other ways to accomplish a similar service to people. I have never used it nor ever considered using this service, though I am only one of 310+ million people. Looking at the source itself:

Amtrak has outstanding debt of $1,400,000,000 and since its inception has always run a deficit. The charts show that that deficit has shrunk, but when is it good news that we are only losing ~$300,000,000 this year on this service?

I don't think that the many you reference are enough to justify a continuously-losing project. That money could be used toward something more efficient. Taking their own numbers, and let's say that every rider is unique (which we know isn't the case), that is ~30,000,000 riders per year. Why can't we raise the rates by $10/ticket to break even? Why can't we phase out this losing program into something similar but more efficient? Is it ok for 90% of the population who don't use this service (is it even a service? you still have to pay for a ticket) pay for it when there are many other options available?

I'm not advocating a blind slash-and-burn of things that are out there but I think that some honest discussion needs to take place to actually evaluate what is going on, what it costs, and if we can do better.

The Bizness

I agree with you that evaluation needs to be done, but I think that ridership would go up if speedier times, and better hours of boarding of arrival times were available.

In Sandusky boarding and arrival times are typically between 12 AM and 8AM so as to arrive in Chicago or New York in the day time.


Re: "speedier times, and better hours of boarding of arrival times were available."

Govt. efficiency? Oxymoron.


"Amtrak is a valuable service to many...far from a boondoggle"

I have no clue what you consider a boondoggle to be but Amtrak sure looks like one compared to all other forms of transportation subsidized by the federal gov't.

Scroll down to the public funding

"According to the DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, rail and mass transit are considerably more subsidized on a per passenger-mile basis by the federal government than other forms of transportation; the subsidy varies year to year, but exceeds $100 (in 2000 dollars) per thousand passenger-miles, compared to subsidies around $10 per thousand passenger-miles for aviation (with general aviation subsidized considerably more per passenger-mile than commercial aviation), subsidies around $4 per thousand passenger-miles for intercity buses, and automobiles being a small net contributor through the gas tax and other user fees rather than being subsidized.[124] On a total subsidy basis, aviation, with many more passenger-miles per year, is subsidized at a similar level to Amtrak. The analysis does not consider social costs and benefits, or difficult-to-quantify effects of some regulation, such as safety regulation."


Social cost or benefit can't be given a number as many folks will have differing opinions, making such guesses immaterial in a logical discussion, unless you wish to sidetrack said discussion.

I could link to many more places that show how inefficient Amtrak is but you can search Amtrak boondoogle or cost over run and find them on your own.

The Bizness

I was purely going off the definition of boondoggle.

noun: boondoggle; plural noun: boondoggles
work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.
"writing off the cold fusion phenomenon as a boondoggle best buried in literature"
a public project of questionable merit that typically involves political patronage and graft.
"they each drew $600,000 in the final months of the great boondoggle"
verb: boondoggle; 3rd person present: boondoggles; past tense: boondoggled; past participle: boondoggled; gerund or present participle: boondoggling
waste money or time on unnecessary or questionable projects.
1930s: of unknown origin.

I don't think it is a waste of time or money. That as always is my humble opinion, and you are free to disagree.


LOL. So you apparently know nothing about the supposed "High-Speed Rail" boondoggle that Ohio put the kabosh to. We are not talking about a train that would make it from Cleveland to Toledo in 30 min. What was slated to be built here at the waste of billions of taxpayer dollars was a train that traveled at a blinding speed of 50 mph. After the initially outlay the citizens of this great state would have been on the hook for maintaining a train and rails that nobody was riding. Sounds alot like Amtrak huh? If this would have been a true high speed rail service it may have had more support, but it wasn't. Who in there right mind would pay to ride a train that takes longer to get from Cleveland to Cincinatti than it would to drive your own car?

The Bizness

I know the plan, and urbanites who didn't have cars would have used it, or people like me that didn't want to pay for gas or wear and tear on my car.


Re: "urbanites who didn't have cars would have used it, or people like me that didn't want to pay for gas or wear and tear on my car."

A minority.

Like I wrote before: A govt. "jobs" program.

Feel good collectivist nonsense with a price tag.

When Al Gore sells his daddy's Occidental Petroleum holdings and the Kennedys put their compound in Hyannis Port on the mkt. because of rising ocean levels, THEN maybe I'll consider their global warming and save the Earth BS.

As my late father-in-law used to say: The nerve that controls the body leads to the hip pocket.


Ill get to Cleveland in 30 min longer, have a car to get around, not have to go through security too. Amtrak never flew, why would this fly? It is now faster to drive to Chicago than fly after 911, it is a 45 min flight, but check in, security and flight costs have made driving better. What do you do to get around when you get there? Rent a car!

Stop It

I care more about stuff like this than I do trains in Cali..



Sad thing is we used to have an extensive rail passenger network. 20th Century Limited, the Super Chief's, Broadway Limited and many more!


I think the Pony Express was a gov't financed boondoggle. :) :)