Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Growers Ready To Battle High-Speed Rail

Fearing California's proposed high-speed train service could cut through farmland, devalue property and undercut a $36 billion industry, Big Agriculture may be gearing up to derail the first phase of construction before plans are even finalized.

It's not a full-fledged fight just yet, but it's shaping up to be. On one side are the growers, backed by the powerful Ag industry and armed with lobbyists. On the other is the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is responsible for the project and has already begun aligning itself with the contractors, cities and unions that stand to benefit.

"There will be lawsuits," said almond grower Keith Gardiner, who owns 3,300 acres of land in Wasco that sits directly in the path of one of the proposed routes. "If backed into a corner, yeah, we are going to come out swinging."

Construction on a 120-mile stretch from just north of Fresno to just south of Bakersfield is scheduled to begin in September 2012. The rail is planned to eventually go from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

California voters first approved a measure in 2008 to provide $9 billion in bonds for a high-speed train service. At that time, tracks were set to go along existing rail lines and transportation corridors. In Wasco, the line could have been built over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, which runs parallel to Gardiner's land.

Gardiner, in fact, would have preferred it that way.Instead, in the most recent alignment proposes a train route that would cut directly through Gardiner's farmland.

"For the most part, we couldn't hug the [BNSF] rail because of the curves and the speed of the train," said Rachel Wall, press secretary for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The rail needs to make San Francisco to Los Angeles in 240 minutes to be considered "high-speed," and the train will make most of its speed in the Central Valley stretch, making the curvy BNSF alignment less attractive.

For now, discontent with the plans has surfaced at high-speed rail authority meetings and in newsletters. Groups opposed to the rail cutting through farmland haven't unleashed lobbyists yet. But that could change as plans are finalized in the next few months.

The Sierra Club has issued letters supporting the high-speed rail along the BNSF line. American Farmland Trust — a group that lobbies Congress on agricultural issues — also sent letters to the high-speed rail authority encouraging the board to go along the existing BNSF line.

The California Farm Bureau Federation has come out against the rail. Public records show they have hired seven lobbyists in California, but filings on payments to lobbyists have not yet been made available. The California Farm Bureau Federation, which has 76,500 members spanning 56 counties in California, spent $330,000 lobbying Congress in 2010.

"To us, it doesn't seem like the [train] should be a priority. Maybe for the future it is. Forty-three billion is just an incredible amount to be spending," said Richard Matteis, administrator for the California Farm Bureau Federation

That's the same rhetoric being used by Republican elected officials across the country. Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida have rejected funds from the Obama administration for high-speed rail, citing concerns over costs. More than $600 million of those unused funds from other states has been redirected to California.

However, federal money for a high-speed train in California is in jeopardy of being diverted. Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, who sits on the transportation committee, signed onto a piece of legislation (H.R. 761) that would allow California to use federal funds currently allocated to the high-speed rail to fix and expand state Highway 99 instead. Denham says using the money this way would help to create jobs now. Matteis said the California Farm Bureau Federation is behind this idea. The crop producers and processors industry contributed $143,214 to Denham's first-time bid for congress in 2010.

Almond-grower Keith Gardiner says he actually supports high-speed rail, if it's on existing transportation lines like Highway 99. But, he says if it cuts through his farmland, he wants California's high-speed rail to face the same fate it has in other states.

"If [the High-Speed Rail Authority] doesn't do it right here, there's going to be such a barrage of negative publicity, high-speed rail may never recover or ever get funding to extend it either north or south," said Gardiner.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized a potential fight over high-speed rail as a conflict between growers and the contractors, cities and unions that could benefit from the project. In fact, growers opposing the project would have to face off against the high-speed rail authority.

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