California’s high speed rail project was supposed to break ground this fall, but the project is on hold again. Even before any trains run, the project will impact farmers like Brad Johns, who grows tomatoes. His farm is 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
One summer afternoon, he walked gently on a canopy of brown vines, stopped, and picked a bright red fruit. “That is an almost perfect Roma tomato. It will be transformed into tomato paste for every pizza parlor in America,” he said.
The 100-degree sunlight pours energy into these fields, generating 15 percent of America’s output of fruits, vegetables and nuts. “We’re standing where the tracks are going to be right now,” he said, pointing along rows of tomato plants. “That’s the angle it’s taking out across my property.”
Currently, 130 miles of track is funded, for $10 billion. This first segment will run from Bakersfield to Madera, where, in the short term, it’ll connect with Amtrak’s existing slow-speed service to the Bay Area. Some $8 billion more is needed to reach across the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles Union Station on the south end.
Governor Jerry Brown started pushing for a bullet train nearly 40 years ago. “When I ran for governor in California the first time, California’s private wealth, together, was about $350 billion. Now it’s almost $2 trillion,” he said after a ceremony in front of Union Station, “we can fund this project.”
Part of the reason it took so long, said the experts, is California’s cumbersome environmental laws, intended to guarantee local communities a voice during the design phase. But parochial interests hijack the process, leading to lawsuits, cost overruns and decade-long delays.
Elizabeth Alexis is the founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD,) which she calls a “watchdog group.” She is critical of the planning process, with a consistent theme: “You have to get across the mountains to get from the Central Valley into the San Francisco Bay Area. And there’s two places to do that,” she explained. “The rail authority has gone to court three times to defend their choice of the one called Pacheco. It doesn’t make any sense from any perspective whatsoever.”
The Pacheco route means High Speed Trains will run a few blocks from her house. The alternate route would use the Altamont pass—and avoids her neighborhood. Alexis said that’s not a factor in her group’s stance. Altamont was rejected, according to the planners, because it bypasses San Jose and requires a new bridge to reach San Francisco.
Back in the Central Valley, cows chew on feed. “As you can tell, cows are calm creatures. It’s very peaceful and quiet out here,” said Steve Gaspar, owner of a dairy. He’s concerned trains will frighten his cows and they’ll stop making milk. But travel to France and trains whiz through cow pastures at 186 mph; the animals graze, unperturbed. Bullet train supporters said California cows—and people—will adjust too.
And that’s why Brad Johns, the tomato grower, is for the train, even though the tracks may go through his house. “You can demolish the house and they will pay you for the house—or they can move it to another location on the ranch,” he explained. “Either way, I’m out of pocket for nothing.”
He envisioned using the train for day trips to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. “And getting back on that same train to be home by midnight to sleep in our own bed.”