FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — The body overseeing plans to build California's bullet train has started the daunting and expensive process of acquiring thousands of acres in the Central Valley, where the rail line's proposed path would slice through farms, stores and motels.
But months after shovels were supposed to be in the ground, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is in escrow on just one parcel of the 370 it needs to buy or seize through eminent domain for the first 30 miles of construction. The agency says it is within 30 days of reaching deals on another 38 parcels and is negotiating over hundreds of others.
For some owners, a buyout is welcome relief in an economically battered area where unemployment remains high. For many others, it's a traumatic and confusing experience that often pits financial considerations against sentiment and history.
In downtown Fresno, not far from the city's historic train station and the proposed high-speed rail stop, commercial buildings are scattered among shuttered factories.
Three of the buildings still in use are owned by ValPrint, a printing business that also leases rental space. Owner Jack Emerian says he supports high-speed rail, but the offers he and his neighbors initially received were too low, "not even close to replacement value."
Emerian was initially given only four months to relocate, but he said officials have since delayed the timeline, as the contractor designing the first segment re-evaluates which parcels of land are needed and when.
"I think they're going to have some problems because I've heard that they're really quite low on their numbers. People have to go out and replace these things," Emerian said.
He added that he is open to "a mutual agreement on what is fair."
Rail Authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales takes pains to note that the agency is following the same eminent domain process as other state agencies, such as when CalTrans buys up property to expand highways. The law allows owners to charge the state up to $5,000 for their own property appraisal after receiving the state's initial offer.
Morales said the land acquisitions for the first Merced-to-Fresno segment are on schedule, although there have been changes since the contractor started this summer. The contractor has started engineering work, but the rail authority is no longer projecting when it will break ground, after previously saying it would start in the spring and later, July.
"In some cases, we need property sooner in order to do testing or surveying, not necessarily to do the construction," Morales said. "So we can get agreements with the property owner to have access to the site prior to acquiring it."
It's a process fraught with complications.