You might describe Daniel Riley as some sort of industrial over-achiever. His rural patch of land in the Central Valley city of Madera has mammoth warehouses that turn-out equally giant steel containers — the kind his dad and grandfather built. At the other end of his property is a full-scale brewery making Riley’s Brewing craft beer.
But soon Riley’s endeavors will share space with an uninvited guest; California’s bullet train.
The under-construction rail line which is slowly rising through the Central Valley took a strip of Riley’s land through eminent domain after he and the agency failed to reach an agreement on price. Riley says the piece of land the agency took includes part of his driveway, making it impossible for him to haul his containers off the property.
“The train itself isn’t what’s causing the problem,” Riley said pointing to construction cranes peaked out above the distant trees. “It’s the overpass and the bridge that’s coming up to my driveway that’s causing the problem.”
Riley’s plight reflects some of the pains of construction as work on the new rail line plows through the valley, taking out overpasses, fruit orchards and hundreds of businesses. New trestles are arising across rivers and over Union Pacific train tracks — in one section Caltrans is even moving Highway 99 over 100 feet to accommodate the train. Detours are numerous.
“Construction for high speed rail is at a minimum a hassle for everybody,” said Fresno musician Chris Millar.
But the work on the first 32 miles between Fresno and nearby Madera is steaming ahead full-speed, even though long-term funding for the $64 billion project is uncertain.
Columns that will hold up train platforms sit in rows flanked by agricultural fields and industrial buildings. Cranes jut from the landscape as legions of workers pour cement, erect bridges and plough under large swaths of Fresno’s downtown to make room for a new station.
“It’s really amazing seeing history like this being built in my own backyard,” said Toni Tinoco, California High Speed Rail’s valley spokeswoman. “I’ve never seen it in my lifetime — I probably won’t again.”
Tinoco is well-familiar with the gripes of residents inconvenienced by the construction. The agency held public meetings starting in 2011 to let people know what was coming. Still, the critics are often as loud as the din of the work itself.
“I get mixed reactions,” Tinoco allowed. “I think it’s a little better now than it was two or three years ago.”
Tinoco points to the construction which has put hundreds to work — from carpenters to electricians to general laborers. She said the agency has bought up numerous properties in the rail line’s path, working to reach purchase agreements with property owners, relocating businesses and attempting to only use eminent domain in rare instances.
“A project like this is going to be inconvenient at first, but the benefits in the long term, they’re magnificent," Tinoco said.
Near Fresno’s Chinatown the rail line cleared rows of old warehouses and an old Greyhound Station to make way for the new bullet train station. A number of Chinatown business owners opposed the removal — posting anti-HSR stickers in their windows in protest.
“I really don’t like it,” said Lynn Ikeda, a third-generation Japanese pastry maker. “There was a lot of history into that.”
Despite the sight of construction throughout the city and beyond, Ikeda is among those who don’t believe the train will ever actually hit the tracks.
“Most of the people here in this area hope that high-speed rail does not continue,” Ikeda said.
But supporters say an electrified train speeding 221 miles an hour between Los Angeles and San Francisco, turning the valley into a bedroom community for the state’s largest cities, will be the payoff for all the inconvenience. The first leg of the train between San Jose and Bakersfield is envisioned to open in 2025.
The project is expected to begin construction in Gilroy and San Jose in a couple years. In the meantime, its phantom train rumbles through the lives and communities of the state’s agricultural belt, with hopes that funding will eventually turn-up.
“We’re funded through the valley,” Tinoco said. “So we’ll continue construction for as long as we can.”