High-speed rail plan comes under scrutiny

California’s ambitious plan for high-speed trains is drawing sharp criticism from San Joaquin Valley farmers who fear the project would carve their property into useless pieces, disrupt their work and drive down land values.

Others accuse the California High-Speed Rail Authority — the agency tasked with building the 800-mile system over the next decade — of ignoring their concerns and steering the proposed rail line into the countryside as the path of least resistance.

“I have been able to deal with immigration officials, the United Farm Workers union and Congress,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. “But these guys at the rail authority don’t want to talk with us. Their attitude is, ‘We are going to put this through, and we don’t really care about these farmers.’ ”

Not so, said Jeff Barker, the authority’s deputy executive director.

“Agriculture is absolutely being listened to, and it will factor into the decisions we’re making,” Barker said. “You can’t build a piece of infrastructure like this without affecting agricultural land, and we want to work with agriculture to mitigate those effects.”

If the project is built as planned, about 170 miles of dedicated high-speed tracks would carry passengers between Merced and Bakersfield at speeds of up to 220 mph across some of the world’s most fertile farmland.

That worries not only farmers whose land is likely in the path of the tracks, but also growers who have property on either side of the route. “I’m a family farmer, and I want to stay a family farmer,” said Brad Johns, a tomato farmer north of Hanford who fears the rail line would slice through his farmland “and right through the front door of my house.”

“But I am acquiescing to reality,” Johns said. “This train is coming and I just have to learn to live with a new neighbor.”

Between Fresno and Bakersfield — where the first $5.5 billion section of tracks is supposed to be built starting in 2012 — one primary route is being considered by the rail authority. It generally runs alongside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks. Exceptions include a sweeping arc to take the tracks east of Hanford and several options to bypass Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter.

Two route options are being evaluated between Fresno and Merced. One parallels the Union Pacific railroad tracks and through the cities of Chowchilla and Madera along Highway 99, while the other tends to run alongside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks a few miles to the east.

Depending on the route that’s ultimately set between Merced and Bakersfield, the rail line may displace about 1,900 acres of property, according to the rail authority. Of that acreage, about 1,460 acres is farmland — about 2 one-hundredths of a percent of the more than 7.5 million acres of agricultural land in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.