Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Four Basic Qs & As for Fresno-Bakersfield HSR Segment

Posted by Roobs on September 23, 2011

Photo Courtesy of AviationMentor

I spent eighteen years of my life growing up in the Central Valley in the City of Visalia, located midway between Bakersfield and Fresno.  I was never a farm boy.  I grew up in a suburban style two-story house in a cul-de-sac.  Though I didn’t grow up on a farm, I developed an appreciation and understanding (especially as I got older) of those who lived and worked in some of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.  It’s an understanding of, not simply a lifestyle but a life devoted to the cultivation of essential crops and resources. But over the course of the debate on high-speed rail (HSR) over the first leg of construction from Bakersfield to Fresno, I hate to see these local communities being pushed and misled by local city officials and executives who would throw hardworking famers under the proverbial bus because of their own intransigence.  Here are four basic questions and answers on the “why” for the Fresno-Bakersfield segment of the California High-Speed Rail project.

Where is the proposed high-speed rail route for the segment?

At present, the California High-Speed Rail project will run through the Central Valley hugging much of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) rights-of-way (ROWs).  However, some track must be laid out in open farmland near the City of Hanford.   The picture below illustrates the Fresno-Bakersfield segment, with the blue line representing the preferred alternative of the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) and the dark red line representing the existing BNSF route.  As you can see, the blue line and the dark red line align throughout much of the route.  It is near Hanford where the lines digress.

Farmers and some community groups are questioning this move, which is understandable.  HSR tracks will need to be laid through existing farmlands, in some cases splitting properties in two.  Some would like to see HSR travel along the existing Highway 99 route to the East.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this and most HSR supporters would be fine if this was the case.  I would personally like it more because it allows for a station to be built closer to my hometown of Visalia.

So why aren’t they building along Highway 99? 

The problem is with Union Pacific Railroad.  Union Pacific owns the ROWs along Highway 99.  If you look at the map above, the lighter red line running along Highway 99 is the Union Pacific railroad.  Union Pacific has refused to participate in anything HSR related in California.  BNSF, on the other hand, has been willing to work with the CAHSRA.  So when it came to alignment in the Central Valley, it made sense to continue to work with a partner in BNSF than fight with an adversary in Union Pacific.

But why does the route go outside of Hanford when the BNSF route continues through the city? 

This is because the City of Hanford didn’t want the train to run through its downtown.  The city claimed it interfered with its historic preservation efforts and future development plans.  As a result, the CAHSRA tried to meet the demands of the city and determined a route to the East of Hanford was the best alternative, unfortunately necessitating tracks to run through existing and parceled-out farmland.  Because of Hanford’s demands, HSR has no choice  but to move eastward because going to the west of Hanford would still impact farmland but also be farther from the population centers of Visalia and Tulare.

As a farmer, why shouldn’t I blame the California High Speed Rail Authority?

Farmers have a right to be worried about their land and a right to protect their property.  However, farmers who want to protect their farmland are focusing their anger at the wrong group.  The CAHSRA cannot force Hanford to allow HSR to go through the city.  They can also not force Union Pacific to let them align HSR tracks with theirs.  So are hardworking farmers going to let Hanford city residents or Union Pacific executives throw them under the bus because they don’t want to compromise?  Farmers should target their frustrations and energy at the city officials in Hanford and at Union Pacific. Many of the problems being expressed would be solved if Union Pacific would let high-speed rail run along its routes and Highway 99 or if Hanford would let HSR run through existing BNSF routes through the city.  It is very easy for cities to maintain historic properties, allow for development and construct transportation corridors.

If farmers want to protect their farmland, they should contact Hanford Mayor Dan Chin and tell him they want to see a HSR alignment through Hanford and not sacrifice farmland for the city’s intransigence.

Roobs is a masters student at UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. He has a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology from UC Berkeley. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and former paralegal for a law firm specializing in real estate development. 


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