A rural town hates the coming of high-speed trains

Jeff Tyler Jul 29, 2015

A rural town hates the coming of high-speed trains

Jeff Tyler Jul 29, 2015

California’s high-speed rail project will pump billions of dollars into the state. While cities like Palmdale welcome the bullet train and its economic benefits, some neighboring towns hate the planned rail project. Consider the small town of Acton.

Within Los Angeles County, you can’t get closer to cowboy country than Acton. It’s up in the foothills. A town of 10,000, Acton has two groceries and an equal number of stores that sell feed for horses.

“If they’re coming to Acton, they’re willing to forgo a Wal-Mart and a shopping mall,” said Pam Wolter, who has been a real estate agent here for 25 years. “They’re coming here for the peace and quiet and for the rural lifestyle.”

All the homes in Acton have big lots — at least one acre. Wolter says the average price for a three-bedroom, two-bath house is about $500,000.

She says the proposed routes for the high-speed train scare away prospective buyers and make current residents think about selling.

“There [are] a lot of changes that are going to happen to Acton,” she says. “And people are already getting concerned. If they’re close to retirement age, and thinking they should move on now, while they can. So we see, as the real estate industry, a serious decline in property value.”

Wolter drives me out to visit the actress Tippi Hedren. She’s most famous for starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Now she runs the Shambala Preserve — a sanctuary for rescued big cats, like Zeus, the 500-pound lion.

“Zeus was living in Texas,” Hedren says. “The son was graduating. And the parents said, ‘We’ll either get you a Lexus or a lion. One of the two.’ And he said, ‘I’ll take the lion.'”

When Zeus grew too big for the Texas family, he moved here.

Hedren says one of the proposed routes for the high-speed rail would cross her property. “If it came through here, we couldn’t be here because of the noise level,” she says. “The Shambala preserve would not be able to exist here.”

I asked if it wasn’t fair to ask people along the planned train route to make a sacrifice for the sake of the environment, since the project would likely reduce the number of people driving in cars. But Hedren doesn’t think consumers will really switch.

“Californians are not train riders,” she says. “We’re really not. When we go to San Francisco, we fly.”

Hedren thinks the bullet train is obsolete before it’s even been built.

Down the road, Ray and Elizabeth Billet grow peaches and pears. Her grandfather homesteaded here back in 1891. Sometimes they rent the property to movie producers.

“I had another one yesterday who wanted to film in August, and I says, ‘Nothin’ doin’,” Elizabeth says. “Because we’ll be picking peaches.”

One of the proposed routes for the high-speed rail would cut across the Billets’ property. Ray says they had planned to develop some of their land, which is zoned for small houses on 5-acre lots.

“That’s gone,” he says. “Nobody’s going to want to live next to a damn railroad that’s going 220 miles an hour.”

And because almost everyone relies on wells, Ray says construction of the high-speed rail will ruin the town’s drinking water.

Elizabeth says the project doesn’t make economic sense for the state. “They don’t have the funding for it.”

After hearing so many complaints about the cost of the project, I turned to Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. He expects the final funding will come from the private sector through a partnership with the state, and that the price tag could be less than the projected $68 billion.

“The bid prices are coming in considerably below our estimates,” he says. “I’m confident that we’re actually going to be able to drive down the cost of delivering this program.”

Morales said the state’s population is growing, and it needs more infrastructure.

“When you do a comparison, the cost of building more roads and more airports is about two to three times what the cost of high-speed rail will be,” he says.

That argument doesn’t carry a lot of weight around Acton.

The state won’t make a final decision about the route for high-speed rail for at least a year. So, residents still have time to persuade officials to move the train’s tracks somewhere else.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.