High Speed Rail Endangers Wildlife, Farmland in Santa Clara County

Photo Credit: International Railway Journal

In our comments last week to California’s High-Speed Rail Authority about the environmental analysis of running the rail from San Jose to Merced, we called for better protections of wildlife connections through Coyote Valley and Pacheco Pass, and to reject a potential East Gilroy Station in the County’s Agricultural Preserve. We will continue our long-running advocacy to protect our local open space and natural resources while the high speed rail process moves forward.

HSR Authority Not Looking Before Leaping Into Environmental Impacts 

Since at least 2008, California has considered building a High-Speed Rail (HSR) system from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with one section running from San Jose south to Gilroy and then east over Pacheco Pass to Merced. While the rail is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from air travel, its construction and operation can have significant on-the-ground impacts. Since the passage of Prop 1A by voters that enabled the planning and construction of this state project, we have focused on minimizing the potential impacts of high-speed rail on our local natural landscapes and wildlife.

Both state and federal law require the HSR Authority to “look before you leap” and examine environmental impacts before reaching a decision. In April, the Authority published its San Jose to Merced Project Section Draft Environmental Impact Report, which we reviewed in conjunction with independent biologists and other experts. Our analysis and that of many others show that the report is inadequate and draws erroneous conclusions that leaves wildlife unprotected, and puts a section of the County’s Agricultural Resource Area at risk of sprawl development from a potential East Gilroy Station.

Major Concerns for Wildlife in Coyote Valley and Southern End of County to Pacheco Pass

While the draft report proposes wildlife crossings like culverts to help animals cross the rail line, in Coyote Valley they don’t provide specific enough description to determine whether the crossings will work. For example, rail line fencing might not guide animals to the few safe crossings, and a potential wildlife bridge might be stopped from construction.

Our analysis also shows that wildlife are not able to cross the rail line effectively in the southern end of the county running up to Pacheco Pass. While the draft proposes some culverts to help animals move safely, they are too small, too long, too few in number, and too dark for the animals to see through to the other side. Mountain lions, deer, tule elk and others will be turned back instead of maintaining genetic connections and spreading to new territories.

Some wildlife, like mountain lions, face severe threats to their survival due to habitat loss from increased development and barriers to migration. The high speed rail alignment through Coyote Valley and up through Pacheco Pass puts these animals at further risk. It is critical that we maintain wildlife habitat and, where possible, enhance wildlife movement so that animals can do more than just survive, but also thrive in our county. 

Extreme and Unnecessary Impacts to County’s Agricultural Resource Area

The impacts to farmland and new threats of sprawl from the potential east-of-Gilroy station and maintenance facility located in a section of the County’s Agricultural Resource Area will be extreme. A new station and maintenance facility in this area will consume over two hundred acres of farmland as well as limit wildlife movement. This is why for the past 9 years we have consistently supported the other proposed location for the station in downtown Gilroy. The downtown station provides better transit access in central Gilroy, making it more affordable and equitable with less adverse environmental impacts.

The draft report also acknowledges that over 1000 acres of farmland will be lost but does not do enough in response. It states it will buy easements to stop other farmland from being developed without guaranteeing the easements will go to farmland under any actual threat of development.

The County established the Agricultural Resource Area to indicate where it will focus farmland conservation as part of its strategy for climate resilience and in support of a robust local agricultural economy and food system. The potentially east-of-Gilroy station and maintenance facility would be a significant blow to that effort and make surrounding farmland very vulnerable to development. We need to permanently protect these lands for the long-term sustainability and health of our region and to mitigate the negative impacts from sprawl development, farmland loss, and climate change.

We’re Fighting For Better Protections and a Better Environmental Analysis

We submitted a detailed comment letter outlining the problems with the draft report and stated the High-Speed Rail Authority cannot proceed with this inadequate environmental review. A revised analysis would be required that specifies how the wildlife crossings in Coyote Valley will work and improves the inadequate and insufficient crossings running up to Pacheco Pass. 

The Authority’s review should also acknowledge the significantly-greater agricultural and wildlife impacts resulting from placing the Gilroy Station on the east side instead of downtown. The Authority should reject that location and make sure the High-Speed Rail is as environmentally-protective as possible. It should ensure that farmland loss in Coyote Valley, for example, be balanced with farmland protection there as opposed to land that is not under threat near the boundary with San Benito County.

What’s Next

We will be closely watching the Authority to encourage them to revise their analysis and address our concerns. We will let you know of any opportunity to hold the Authority accountable for ensuring our local wildlife and farmland is protecting from the impacts of high-speed rail.

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