High-Speed Rail Mudslinging Continues

Sorry, High-speed Rail is not Napoleon invading Russia. We promise.

HSR cutting through groves of trees at the Road 27 overcrossing in Madera County. Photo: CAHSRA
HSR cutting through groves of trees at the Road 27 overcrossing in Madera County. Photo: CAHSRA

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Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the L.A. Times and its biased CA High-Speed Rail reporting. But we didn’t want to let this one slide–last month the paper’s reporter on the beat, Ralph Vartabedian, penned a piece claiming that the HSR Authority is taking farmers’ land without paying them.

We’re certainly sympathetic to farmers losing land that’s been in their family for generations. We can believe that state bureaucracies have let people fall through the cracks. Sadly, that seems almost inevitable on such an enormous project. But, as usual, Vartabedian presents far-fetched claims where it’s obvious that key information was omitted to make it seem as if CaHSRA staff are villains running around the Central Valley twirling mustaches and burning down almond groves.

So we did what the L.A. Times is supposed to do and got information to try and achieve some balance.

We called up Brad Johns, a tomato farmer near Hanford who, unlike everyone in Vartabedian’s piece, is not a long-time opponent of California HSR efforts. The tracks will cut through his farmland too. And we asked him, hey, did the state pay you for the land it took?

“Yes!” he exclaimed, adding that he was paid in a matter of weeks and that the Authority was forthright and professional. “They paid for what they took.” And he had a message for Vartabedian: “I don’t know where you’re getting your disinformation.” (Part of it seems to be coming from farmer John Tos, who Vartabedian quotes extensively in his article and who has been a leader in opposing the project from the beginning).

We also spoke with Brian Annis, the Chief Financial Officer of the High-speed Rail Authority. “We do our best to work with landowners to initiate a land transfer by contract, outside the eminent domain process,” he explained in a phone interview. “In the majority of cases, we’re able to avoid eminent domain and just go through negotiations to acquire the property.”

A mud-slinged High-speed Train in Paris. Photo by (c) Uddhav Gupta
A mud-slinged High-speed Train in Paris. Photo by (c) Uddhav Gupta

He said if they were really paying late, the authority is subject to fines. But he said that hasn’t happened in more than two years.

“For landowners where we’re not successful in negotiating a contract we go into eminent domain,” Annis said, which means starting court procedures. “In those cases, we have to put in a deposit with the court of the estimated compensation due to that landowner, which would be market value of the land and could also include moving expenses and other economic expenses.”

A spokesperson for the Authority added that of the 1,827 parcels they need “…in the Central Valley, we have acquired 956 without having to file a court action.”

“The next tranche… more than one-third, or 223 parcels, were resolved short of a court determination,” said Annis.

And the rest of the properties are still getting fought over, to some extent or another, in court.

CaHSRA can’t comment on individual cases, but eminent domain works this way: an appraiser figures out the value of the land needed. That money goes into an escrow account while the case is decided in the courts. If the landowner takes the money, the battle over compensation can still continue, but ownership of the land goes to the Authority. As long as the landowner doesn’t take the money, the land remains under their ownership until the court decides on proper compensation.

So how much is still in dispute? There was about “$15.7 million in condemnation deposits,” said Annis. “About $10.8 million has been withdrawn.” That means there’s only about $5 million worth of land, collectively, in limbo.

So if Tos and the other farmers Vartabedian mentioned haven’t been paid, it may simply be because they are unwilling to give up their land and haven’t taken the money. Or they’ve taken the money and feel they’re owed more. They may have legitimate grievances, or maybe they did fall through the cracks, but given their long-standing opposition to the project, Vartabedian’s report, once again, seems dubious.

Here’s how Johns sees it: “If you are building a water project, a sewer, a highway, you have to take people’s land; some people stick their heads in the sand,” he said, adding that shysters take advantage of people and convince them they can actually defeat the eminent domain procedures and hold onto their land somehow.

The L.A. Times story quotes Mark Wasser, an eminent domain attorney in Sacramento who “has represented more than 70 farmers and other businesses losing land to the rail project.” He told the Times that the HSR project is bogged down in the Central Valley like “…Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.”

No, this is not California HSR
Napoleon invading Russia. Not like High-Speed Rail in the Central Valley.

“I know one grower down here who bought into the BS and fought it [the land acquisitions],” added Johns. “It was a small parcel; the settlement was for a million when they finished the eminent domain process. But his attorney bill was $450,000.”

  • MonadnockMan

    Really, well not so and who wrote this the authority or the law firm? Either way it is wrong.

  • jltulock

    “It was a small parcel; the settlement was for a million when they
    finished the eminent domain process. But his attorney bill was
    $450,000.” Good for him for fighting.

  • Affen_Theater

    I’m pretty sure those are smashed bugs — not dirt. While I cannot think of where or why a HS train would be operated through airborne mud or dirt, it’s not uncommon for the front of HSTs to seasonally get covered in smashed bugs while hurtling past and through flying bugs between stops out in the countryside.

  • Affen_Theater

    “Good for him” for being out $450k on an unwinnable fight!? Spoken like an attorney.

  • Affen_Theater
  • Roger R.

    Hmm. So DB stands for “Dead Bugs?” 🙂

  • Robert Tupilo

    I want my cash – stop this giant pig from growing like a public employee pension and free lifetime health benefit at taxpayer expense.

  • sf in sf

    So why is the LA Times so fervently against high-speed rail, anyway? Are there friendly writers there who we can ask WTF is going on?

  • keenplanner

    I wish people opposing the HSR project would go get passports and experience HSR. All of them don’t know what they’re talking about and it’s unconscionable for the LA Times to give them column inches. But maybe an uninformed rant sells more papers than pesky facts.

  • keenplanner

    Old-school republicans

  • keenplanner

    Actually, fighting was bad for him.

  • crazyvag

    Opponents might also want to have their own proposal on how to reduce CO2 emissions from air transport.

  • Robert Tupilo

    I love me

  • Kieran

    I think Japanese, Chinese and transportation writers from The Netherlands would have a much better grip on high speed rail’s pros/cons compared to most American transportation writers. Until transportation writers from those countries write articles that get posted here, we’ll get more of the same anti high speed rail viewpoints.

  • Guy Ross

    Little known fact: because France is being forced by Angela Merkel to shut down all their reactors, they have rationed power supplies to the TGV system. Mule teams currently pull the wagons and with the momentum generated on downhill stretches, they throw up a lot of mud. This is what you see in the photo.

  • thielges

    Unfortunately there’s a significant number of people who don’t care about the greenhouse gas problem.

  • David

    Most of the high-speed rail work has been done by private contractors, which costs taxpayers more money than public employees who get pensions. Facts are such a hassle, aren’t they?

  • Robert Tupilo

    Kill public employee pensions and lifetime health benefits and CA might survive. The inconvenient truth is CA is bankrupt because of it. Required bookkeeping just hasn’t caught up yet.

  • John Nachtigall

    How can you criticize the LA times when you can’t dispute the facts of their story? You mention multiple times that is “may” be true but you doubt it. And your counter argument is speaking with 1 farmer. Even your quote from the CFO does not dispute the story, You have zero evidence his reporting is inaccurate.

    You constantly criticize Ralph’s reporting, but continually fail to actually dispute the facts he reports. Your only real criticism is that he does not support your narrative. His reports on inefficient building, emanate domain, and other failures have been independently supported by audits and other reporting.

    The only bias here is you. Despite the constant failures CAHSR this blog blindly supports it without criticism

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  • Claude

    I like old school Republicans. They understand infrastructure.
    It’s the new Tea Party libertarian Republicans who think highways grow on trees and petroleum was ordained by God as the only virtuous transportation fuel. I have trouble with them.

  • Roger R.

    Thanks Claude. I was about to list Ray LaHood, Schwarzenegger, Ashley Swearengin… all Republicans and specifically CAHSRA supporters. And Bush Senior signed off on federal funding for Acela and the electrification from New Haven to Boston. So It’s not old school Republicans that are the problem.

  • Roger R.

    I think the great John Oliver summed up the kind of Republicans that are the real problem: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/9iw1qo/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-tempest-in-a-tea-party—tea-bag-tyranny

  • Wylied

    So California’s HSR project is 10 years behind schedule, tens of billions of dollars over budget, has yet to find a single private funder despite promises made in Prop 1A, has no approved route from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, has yet to acquire 100s of parcels needed for the Central Valley route, which was supposed to be the easiest segment to complete, and yet somehow Ralph Vartebdian is biased when he reports just a fraction of the facts about the HSR mess.

    For those who insist on comparing HSR in Europe, Japan, or China with California’s failing effort, population densities in those regions served are much greater than here in California, despite which, every one of those projects continues to be subsidized by thier governments–they are not money-making or break-even–something that voters were promised CA HSR would be. Just try applying China’s environmental impact and land-seizure practices to California and see how far that gets you.

    You True Believers will really flip out over the latest HSR news: