Location: front left seat EE set now departed
Bees at work hummed from one almond bloom to the next across thousands of acres just north of Shafter Wednesday afternoon.
Every few minutes, a train sounding its horn broke up the din, a not-so-gentle reminder that this farming area so prized for its Kimberlina fine sandy loam soil also serves as a transportation corridor linking north and south.
How peacefully these dual roles can coexist may soon be put to the test as the California High-Speed Rail Authority prepares to decide whether to run 220-mph trains along existing tracks through Wasco and Shafter -- or take what could be a less complicated route through prime Kern County farmland.
Environmental review work remains to be done, and no final decision is expected until spring 2012. But ultimately, the decision could pit taxpayer savings against local farmers who argue that cutting a 100-foot-wide train route through agricultural fields and orchards would compromise their economic opportunities.
Of the many controversies surrounding the multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project, probably none have gained as much attention from the Central Valley's agriculture industry as this one.
Farmer Keith Gardiner said he generally supports the rail project because of its transportation benefits and the jobs it would create. But as a partner in Wasco Real Properties 1, owner of 3,300 acres of almond trees along Kimberlina Road, he is looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in new costs if the rail authority steers away from the existing BNSF railroad route and instead runs through agricultural land.
The main problem as he sees it is that the proposed alignment through farmland would slice through his property at an awkward angle, forcing the partnership to invest in new wells, irrigation pipelines, pumps and water filters. Parts of the property would suddenly become isolated, posing logistical problems when the time comes to run tractors and other equipment through company orchards.
He and one of his partners, Holly King, also said such a route would reduce the company's available acreage beyond the 100-foot corridor: Because farming equipment cannot turn on a tight radius, it would not be able to reach trees abutting the railroad.
"High-speed rail should enhance a community, not degrade it," King said.
Farmers also claim to have the backing of state law, specifically AB 3034, the legislation that led to a nearly $10 billion bond measure to help pay for the bullet train system. The measure says that the bullet train should follow existing transportation corridors if possible, and minimize impacts to the natural environment.
Gardiner, King and more than 120 other members of the Wasco-Shafter Agricultural Group have solicited -- and largely won -- the support of Kern government leaders. A local chapter of the Sierra Club has sided with the farmers, too.
Earlier this month the county Board of Supervisors sent rail authority Chairman Curt Pringle a letter stating that building an alignment along the BNSF line would minimize the loss of valley farmland while also providing certain infrastructure improvements for freight and passenger rail traffic through the area.
The city of Shafter appears to have come around after initially resisting the idea of sending high-speed trains through town. City Manager John Guinn said Thursday that the city views agriculture is its most important industry.
"Provided that it's done properly," Guinn said, keeping the alignment on or close to existing BNSF line "is probably the more preferred route that we would want."
Wasco officials could not be reached for comment late last week.
No estimates of the two proposed routes' costs have been released publicly, and rail authority staff declined even to say which proposal would cost more money. They say there remain too many details to be worked out, including how much money would have to be paid to the area's agricultural community for farmland and various mitigation measures such as new wells and tunnels for running tractors under or over the railroad.
But local farmers say they worry because, theoretically at least, building a new train track through a city costs more than building one in the countryside. That's mainly because running a high-speed train through Wasco and Shafter could require the construction of elevated or below-grade tracks, among other changes.
Project staff cautioned against concluding that the farm route would necessarily be less expensive. While deputy program manager Gregg Albright acknowledged that it can be "much less" expensive to go through farmland, mitigation will be required either way, and "it's not a matter of what's the cheapest route."
"Ag land is pretty special stuff," he said Friday.
He added that the authority's goal is to avoid intruding on resources, agricultural or otherwise. In cases where disruption is unavoidable, he said, staff will work with individual property owners to compensate them fully.
Rail authority board member Fran Florez, who lives in Shafter, said the decision on which route to take will be difficult. But it will be easier if local interests can reach consensus.
BNSF Railway Co., owner of the existing railroad, is in talks with the rail authority, company spokeswoman Lena Kent said. She declined to say which alignment the company prefers in the Shafter-Wasco area.
Impact either way
The bullet train project is expected to impact farmers in the area regardless of whether it keeps to the BNSF. High-speed trains turn more gradually than the freight and Amtrak trains using the route now, and so new track would have to be built in a way that cuts off some farmland.
County Supervisor Ray Watson said this inevitability makes it that much more important to soften the local impact as much as possible.
"If it's properly mitigated, it becomes more tolerable," he said. "In the end, somebody's going to get impacted."
Elsewhere in the valley farmland is expected to be displaced by the project, meaning that similar concerns are to be expected north of Kern County as well.
Fresno County farmer John Diener, who said his land would not be touched by the routes under consideration now, supports the project. He noted that farmers will have to be compensated for their land and paid for any necessary mitigation measures such as new irrigation systems.
To Diener, the project is worth the trouble. He said it will reduce congestion on freeways, saving farmers money and time.
"The more congestion there is, the slower the traffic, the more fuel you actually burn," he said.
The Kern Council of Governments is working to document the concerns of farmers and other interested local parties in an effort to speak to the authority with a unified voice, executive director Ron Brummett said.
From his perspective, the county's farmers may be justified in their frustration. He said they have sent much information to the authority but have heard very little back from the authority.
"I think it's more of a communication issue," he said.
Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall acknowledged that staff have done more listening than talking at this point. But that's because of where the project is in the process, she said.
"While we may not be able to answer each individual property owner as the questions are asked," Wall said, "the intent is to take in that information and answer it for everyone."
A draft environmental review of the project's first segment, which is to stretch from north of Fresno south to about 7th Standard Road, is scheduled for public release June 11. That is to be followed by a 45-day public comment period. Construction is not expected to begin until the second half of next year