By Chris Nichols

Curt Nicolaisen fell in love with Rainbow’s rural charm 24 years ago. The town’s warmhearted residents and natural beauty convinced him to leave suburban Orange County and build a home on Rice Canyon Road.

But never once did Nicolaisen, a soft-spoken product quality engineer, expect a multibillion-dollar bullet train line could one day run through his peaceful 4-acre property.

That, however, is the California High Speed Rail Authority’s rough plan.

A Google map of the project, on the authority’s Web site, shows a proposed tunnel cutting through Nicolaisen’s land and that of dozens of other Rainbow and Bonsall parcels as the rail runs south along the Interstate 15 corridor.

“Shock and disbelief,” was Nicolaisen’s first reaction upon viewing the map late this summer.

Next came worry and lament.

“In three years, the house is going to be paid off and this comes along,” said Nicolaisen, 52, who lives with his wife, Mary, and their two golden retrievers in a country home surrounded by palm, citrus and avocado trees.

“We planned on dying here,” he said, adding he will fight to keep his home.

Nicolaisen’s case provides a window into the possible challenges state officials will have as they plan and build the 800-mile-long high-speed rail network. Some landowners could force the state to use eminent domain to take their land; others may agree to relocation settlements and turn over their property.

Public meetings about the project are set for this week in Escondido, La Jolla and San Diego, and next week in Murrieta. High-speed rail stations are planned in all four communities.

The meetings will serve as a “kick-off” of a years-long environmental review of the project, said Jose Martinez, who is managing the development of the line’s 167-mile Los Angeles-to-San Diego stretch for the rail authority.

Questions and comments are welcome from the public at the meetings, Martinez said.

Once the entire project is complete —- and that won’t be for a decade or more —- the rail line will connect the state’s major cities from San Diego to Sacramento, with trains zipping north and south at more than 200 mph.

California voters last fall approved a $9.95 billion bond for the project, estimated to cost $45 billion. Statewide, 52.7 percent of voters supported the proposition. In San Diego County, 48.5 percent approved, while 49 percent said “yes” in Riverside County. Last week, state leaders asked the federal government for $4.7 billion in stimulus funds to help plan and build the rail line.

Transportation leaders have championed high-speed rail for its potential to ease congestion on state freeways and create tens of thousands of jobs.

The cost of the project, however, has caused some to balk.

“We’re spending all that $40 billion? Who does that really benefit except the people that are building it,” said Don Vierstra, a retired land developer who is watching the project closely because he owns property along I-15 in Murrieta. “That money can be spent on so many other things … our own freeways.”

The rail authority’s 2008 estimates put the project’s land acquisition costs at about $2.5 billion, earthwork at $3.5 billion, the cost of the trains at $4 billion and all structures at $6 billion. Other costs include designing the project, building the track and grade separations, environmental mitigation and the electrification of the rail line.

Vierstra said the project’s cost, more than what might happen to his vacant half-mile strip of land, is his main worry.

Despite residents’ concerns, officials say project plans —- including the route —- are nowhere near final.

“I think the key word is ‘general’ route,” Martinez said.

He said rail officials won’t have answers to all questions at the upcoming meetings —- in fact, he said they won’t be able to address Nicolaisen’s particular and very large concern about a tunnel planned under his greenhouse.

“We’re not to that level of information,” he said.

Still, Martinez said, “What we want is questions to start shaping the route. Right now, we’re still at the starting gate.”

The local stretch would run south along I-15, with stops in Murrieta and Escondido, and then cut west across Sorrento Valley with a stop in University City. From there, it would continue south along Interstate 5 with a final stop in downtown San Diego.

Planning for the local leg is about three to five years behind compared with the San Francisco and Los Angeles regions. Martinez said environmental review in San Diego County will probably run until the end of 2013.

Construction on the state’s earliest rail sections could be complete by fall 2017, although that timeline doesn’t apply locally, Martinez said.

Much of the work depends on raising billions more dollars from both the public and private sector, he said.

Nicolaisen, who is a member of the Rainbow Community Planning Group and familiar with the approval process for large projects, said he is worried the route is more fixed than officials are letting on.

“When it gets to the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) point, it’s a runaway train,” he said. “No pun intended.”

Nicolaisen and several neighbors argued the line should run along or underneath I-15 the whole way south. As proposed, it does so for much of the route from Murrieta south but then tunnels through Rainbow and Bonsall just south of Temecula as I-15 bends west.

“Why would you put it under a community’s houses? Affect their wells?,” asked Bud Swanson, also a member of the Rainbow Community Planning Group.

Swanson and others noted that Rainbow’s high water table, which allows a bevy of nurseries to flourish in the area, would likely be drained by such a project. “It would have far less impact on the community (under the freeway).”

Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler, who chairs the region’s transportation planning agency, said residents in the rail line’s path should be dealt with “fairly and honestly.”

If necessary, she said, the authority should buy their property, relocate them and not drag its feet.

Nicolaisen said he will have a lot of questions at the Escondido meeting.

“I would like to learn all the details of what they’re doing: The exact route, the depth (of the tunnel). Are they condemning my house? Are the pictures on my wall going to shake every five minutes?” Nicolaisen said.

Call staff writer Chris Nichols at 760-740-5426.

Public scoping meetings in local area, all from 3 to 7 p.m.

Tue., Oct. 13, Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla

Wed., Oct. 14, Ramada Limited, San Diego Airport, 1403 Rosecrans St., San Diego

Thu., Oct. 15, Escondido Center for the Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido

Mon., Oct. 19 Murrieta Public Library, Eight Town Square, 24700 Adams Ave., Murrieta

Public comments

Public comments about the project can be submitted on the rail authority’s Web site,, or by writing to Dan Leavitt, deputy director, ATTN: Los Angeles to San Diego via the Inland Empire Section HST Project EIR/EIS, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento, CA 95814, or by e-mail with subject line “LA-SD HST Section via the Inland Empire” to [email protected] no later than Nov. 20.

North County Times: