FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Driving south on Highway 99 past Madera, a small agricultural town characteristic of California’s Central Valley, the yellow cranes jut out against the horizon.
For proponents of the California high-speed rail project, the cranes are not only the symbols of progress, bustle and productivity; they also represent a sense of inevitability for one of the nation’s largest and most daunting infrastructure projects.
“Building something like this is very hard,” said California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Chairman Dan Richard. “In 21st century America, to build something of any magnitude is an enormous undertaking.”
The challenges the $68 billion project has faced so far are many, including entrenched political opposition, logistical challenges of right-of-way and route selection, clearing the significant environmental hurdles to comply with both state and federal regulations, and securing funding.
“The most obvious challenge is funding,” Richard said in an interview. “But I think our biggest challenge is imagination. Most Americans have not ridden high-speed rail. Most Americans cannot imagine how this project is going to change their lives.”
But critics of the project remain, and in some quarters they are growing more vociferous.
One of the more unlikely critics is Quentin Kopp. Dubbed the father of California high-speed rail, the former state senator was instrumental in convening the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 1996, served as its chairman, and wrote the ballot proposal Proposition 1A — ultimately approved by California voters in 2008.
“The project they have now is not high-speed rail,” Kopp said.
Kopp believes the rail authority’s plans to share track with Caltrain’s regional service from San Jose to San Francisco will not only hinder the system’s ability to be financially self-sustaining once built, but run contrary to the legal provision set forth in Proposition 1A.
“There are two characteristics set forth in Proposition 1A, one that it must run on dedicated tracks and not share a track with any other entity, and the other is that it must be electrified so it can obtain its top speed,” Kepp said.
These issues are central to a lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by farmer John Tos, Kings County and other plaintiffs against the California High Speed Rail.
Tos owns nearly 600 acres of farmland in Kings County, and he says his agricultural operations will be severely impacted by the proposed route.
“John has been hurt the worst out of anybody in Kings County,” Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon said in an interview.
Verboon also opposes high-speed rail, and says even those who support the project in his mostly rural community are completely frustrated with the way the project has been carried out.
“It’s devastating to see our community going through this and they still don’t have a plan,” Verboon said.
But the county supervisor also reluctantly acknowledges that Fresno stands to benefit from high-speed rail, as the station and surrounding commercial and residential development has the potential to transform a currently downtrodden part of the city.
The same goes for the small town of Hanford in Kings County, where the rail authority plans to put a station and a modest maintenance yard.
“If it’s all said and done, we don’t want to miss out on the opportunity and it is important to have a station there,” Verboon said. “Not everybody is going to want to go to Fresno.”
This spirit of reluctant acceptance is beginning to pervade communities up and down the Central Valley, an agricultural breadbasket with a politically conservative outlook that is far removed from the palm tree-lined streets, surf-decked beaches or Golden Gate-flecked visions most outsiders harbor of California.
The bustle of new construction and the influx of jobs to a region that had soaring unemployment rates even as the rest of the state recovered post-recession has played a part in catalyzing that perspective shift.
“The money we got was from the federal stimulus program, and the Central Valley is an area that has high poverty and high unemployment,” Richard, the rail authority chairman, said. “The investment we have made has made a tremendous difference there.”
Construction is underway in a 119-mile corridor from Madera to Kern County, with projects running the gamut from large concrete viaducts to highway realignments to large trenches for track running north-south just west of downtown Fresno.
“We’re using 30 percent local contractors and there is a lot of disadvantaged and minority workers on the project right now,” said Toni Tinoco, a spokeswoman for California High-Speed Rail who took Courthouse News on a tour of construction sites from the Madera-Fresno County border to south of Fresno, a city of nearly 500,000. “It’s not just the contractor and subcontractor either, but there are a lot of professional services that come with project too.”
While Tinoco is eager to tout the community benefits of the active construction, she understands the gripes of property and business owners who were displaced or forced to relocate as part of the project.
However, she notes even those contentious matters have sometimes reached a positive resolution.
Cosmopolitan’s, a famed Fresno restaurant, was forced to move due to high-speed rail construction. But it has since capitalized on its new digs located closer to downtown amenities with more and better parking.
Likewise, the Chinatown businesses, which have been hurt by road closures near the construction in Fresno, have recently come around after realizing once the rail is up and running, their proximity to a brand new station may carry more economic benefits in the long term that outweigh the present impairment.
Verboon said these examples may be convenient for high-speed rail officials, but are the exception.
He says his constituents, several of whom have agricultural operations that have run for decades if not centuries, are unable to get fair compensation from the rail agency that is looking after its own bottom line.
“You have a ranch that has been in a family for several generations and it’s worth $500,000. And now it’s worth only $100,000 and it has a train running through it,” Verboon said. “How do you even get compensated for that?”
But the focus on the Central Valley presents another problem for high-speed rail, according to Kopp, the onetime proponent-turned-critic.
“When the ballot measure passed, it specified San Francisco to Los Angeles must be traversed at speeds of 220 miles per hour,” Kopp said, noting the measure also specified the Central Valley would be used as a test track. But current plans call for the first trains to run between Bakersfield and San Jose – not LA to San Francisco – starting in 2025, tentatively.
“You’re gonna start service from Wasco to Chowchilla,” Kopp said. “Wow, so many people are going to ride that.”
Others question whether the rider demand will be there, particularly when the project initially billed as connecting California’s two major metropolitan hubs will – for the time being – only connect some Central Valley cities and San Jose.
Furthermore, the obvious problem of funding hovers even as construction booms in and around Fresno.
Richard, the rail authority chair, said high-speed rail has “its arms around where about two-thirds of the money will come from.”
But he acknowledges that the federal support originally contemplated by the architects of high-speed rail like Kopp does not seem to be forthcoming.
While the state of California and Gov. Jerry Brown said funds generated via its cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions will be siphoned off to support high-speed rail, it remains unclear how much that program can generate.
The high-speed rail authority confirmed in October that it has spent the $3.5 billion in federal stimulus funds, which Richard said was used to get the project to where it is today.
Critics like Kopp and Verboon say that money has largely been squandered through inefficiency, cost overruns and other logistical quagmires.
The rail authority also maintains private investment has the possibility to overcome funding issues, with Richard and other board members saying they expect investors to get in the game as the project nears fruition.
Kopp calls that “propaganda,” though the project was buoyed by news earlier this month that the rail authority awarded a $30 million contract to DB Engineering, the U.S.-based arm of German rail giant Deutsche Bahn. Richard said at the time several companies from countries like Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada and China demonstrated growing international interest in the project, lending it weight and validity.
But during the same meeting, fellow board member Dan Curtin said he was troubled by the lack of plans for soliciting private investment in the contract between the rail authority and DB Engineering.
And the fact that Richard is the main spokesman for the rail authority underscores another area of concern: a recent exodus in executive leadership.
CEO Jeff Morales stepped down this past spring and has yet to be replaced. Other senior leadership positions recently vacated also remain empty.
Despite these persistent challenges, even critics treat the project with a sense of inevitability, a good sign for the embattled rail authority staff members charged with managing the first ever high-speed rail project in the United States and one of the largest public infrastructure projects of the new century.
Richard hopes that positive sign and the ever-present cranes hovering beside the Fresno skyline are enough to be the harbingers of a new era of transportation in California and beyond.