Glass Half-Full? High-Speed Rail Avoids Destroying Gilroy Farmland

Photo Credit: International Railway Journal

Regardless of how one may feel about High-Speed Rail (HSR), it is important that it avoids and mitigates impacts to farmlands, ranchlands, and habitats if it moves forward in our area. Despite Green Foothills taking no stance on the statewide question of whether to have high-speed rail, we did submit extensive comments to limit local open space impacts.

While significant impacts were not entirely avoided, especially to natural and cultural landscapes important to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, we are pleased the Gilroy Station will be located downtown at the Caltrain Station. For a decade, we had championed this location over the environmentally destructive alternative, a proposed East Gilroy Station in the County’s Agricultural Resource Area.

High-Speed Rail Is a Long Term Issue

Since at least 2008, California has considered building an 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 2020, the Authority published its San Jose to Merced Project Section Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which we reviewed in conjunction with independent biologists and other experts. Our analysis and that of many others showed that the report was inadequate and drew erroneous conclusions that leave wildlife unprotected. It also put a section of the County’s Agricultural Resource Area at risk of sprawl development from a potential East Gilroy Station.

The Worst Impacts to County’s Agriculture Avoided

The impacts to farmland and new threats of sprawl from the potential East Gilroy Station and nearby maintenance facility would have been a significant blow to the County’s efforts at farmland conservation in our valley and would have limited wildlife movement there. There are significant farmland impacts associated with HSR in Santa Clara County even without the East Gilroy Station, so stopping that station becomes all the more important. The East Gilroy Station and maintenance facility would have been built on existing farmland, effectively destroying it forever, and create growth-inducing impacts on the east side of Highway 101 in the Gilroy area, an area that is relatively less developed. In contrast, the downtown station has less adverse environmental impacts and provides better transit access, making it more affordable and equitable.

Rail Will Still Have Significant Impacts

The HSR impacts Coyote Valley as well as the Pacheco Pass area, both of which serve as crucial wildlife linkage areas. We submitted comments on these areas as well, and the EIR does plan substantial mitigation. Permanent protection of remaining farmlands is critical for maintaining a local food supply and mitigating the impacts of climate change. We will continue to work with partners to try to improve these mitigations and to protect open space from rail impacts.

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