California’s High-Speed Rail: Is It Worth the Price?

Proponents of the California High-Speed Rail Project say it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from travel. However, there are problems with the construction of HSR. 

Eating up California Farmland

The first segment of the California High-Speed Rail Project stretches 170 miles from Merced in the north to Bakersfield in the south. It cuts across some of the most fertile farmland in the world. The HSR Project also affects homes and businesses. As a result of the project, the state of California is taking possession of farmland throughout the San Joaquin Valley. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2019 that “farmers often face out-of-pocket costs for lost production, road replacement, repositioning of irrigation systems and other expenses, which the state agrees to pay before the final settlement.” 

“Farmers are paying for these costs out of pocket, sometimes reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” wrote California Assembly Member Vince Vong in an opinion piece on Medium.

“Despite these good faith efforts on the part of farmers, High-Speed Rail bureaucrats are in no hurry to issue refunds for these significant costs. Farmers have waited years for reimbursements with nothing but excuses from the High-Speed Rail Authority.”

California Agriculture: Feeding the World

California is the nation’s number one agricultural producer and exporter. It is the nation’s only producer of several crops, including almonds, artichokes, clingstone peaches, dried plums (prunes), figs, garlic, olives, persimmons, pistachios, pomegranates, canned tomatoes, raisins, sweet rice, and walnuts. California grows half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. California is also the nation’s top dairy and cotton producer. 

The California agricultural industry totals $43 billion annually. Its agricultural exports totaled $22.5 billion in 2021. California is the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food and agriculture commodities, producing over 400 crops. The Central Valley, which the San Joaquin Valley is a part of, represents $30 billion of California’s agriculture and has seven of the top 10 producing counties in the state. Since 1984, the San Joaquin Valley lost 1.3 billion acres of agricultural land. Development converts 8.5 square miles of high-quality farmland annually into urban areas. If this conversion rate continues, the San Joaquin Valley will lose 500,000 more acres of land by 2050, and 300,000 will be very productive cropland.HSR will worsen the conversion process of agricultural land. 

The High Cost of High-Speed Rail

The project will result in 31,500 additional jobs by 2029, the expected completion date of the first segment, according to a study by San Jose State University. However, those jobs come at a high cost. An updated report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority shows the latest price for the first segment is $35 billion, $10 billion more than secured funding. 

“There is nothing but problems on the project,” the Speaker of the State Assembly, Anthony Rendon, said last year.

One of those problems is flooding. Part of the HSR construction is on the Tulare Lake bed. In the spring, portions of the HSR construction in Kings and Tulare counties flooded as the once-dormant lake made a comeback. Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. “If the lake were to become a permanent feature, it could leave a portion of the high-speed rail right-of-way underwater,” stated the Cato Institute

Flooding could remain a problem. The High-Speed Rail Authority commissioned a subsidence study in 2017 that found land sinkage would worsen flooding in the Corcoran area. The study concluded that “the resulting flood depth along the HSR Alignment could potentially be more than 16 feet, and the length of the HSR Alignment within the modified flood zone could potentially be more than 20 miles.”

Another problem the HSR faces is the perception of people in the San Joaquin Valley that it is a train to nowhere. The route mainly follows the already existing Amtrak route. The demand to travel within the Valley on HSR is likely low. As Quentin Kopp, a retired former legislator and former proponent of HSR, told The Guardian, “Who cares about going from Merced to Bakersfield?”

Image by Don Barrett on Flickr

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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