High-speed rail is coming to the Central Valley. Residents see a new life in the fast lane

FRESNO, Calif. —  The piling rig was in position, ready to drive a concrete pillar 40 feet into the ground. Just beyond the rig on this winter afternoon, trucks and cars continued streaming down State Road 198 in Hanford, separated from the construction site by white dividers.

Then, the pile-driving began. Foot by foot, the rig’s hammer slammed the pillar into the ground with the rhythmic beat of a metronome. With every blow, the ground shook and exhaust spewed. The beam would be one more in a network of pillars pounded deep into the earth to create the foundation for a high-speed rail line that in a matter of years will glide along tracks above the state highway, launching a new era in California’s Central Valley.

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From earth-moving equipment to heavy trucks ferrying massive beams and bulldozers clearing piles of debris, construction related to California’s high-speed rail project is evident across the San Joaquin Valley. Farther north, crews worked atop a viaduct that will carry the high-speed line above existing freight tracks that cut across the state north to south. And in Fresno’s Chinatown, restaurant and retail owners eagerly served a steady influx of construction workers, engineers and electricians, part of a broader transformation of the city’s downtown and economic prospects.

California’s high-speed rail may still be a matter of carping debate in some political circles, but it’s fast becoming a reality for residents of the Central Valley. This heavily farmed region — historically separated from Los Angeles, San Francisco and the California coast by both conservative politics and physical distance — is first in line to benefit from an infrastructure project being built with tens of billions of dollars in state and federal funding.

The 171-mile stretch of rail running between Merced and Bakersfield could be operational as early as 2030, with testing of the bullet trains slated to begin in 2028, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority. The project has created more than 12,000 construction jobs, with 70% of those workers coming from the Central Valley. Authority officials cited 25 active construction sites, with the Kings/Tulare station outside Hanford being the largest. The authority is closing in on finishing 22 miles of rail north of Shafter, set to be the first segment of the rail line completed.

In December, the Biden administration awarded the authority a $3.1-billion grant, the authority’s biggest award to date. The funds will go toward purchase of six electric trains for testing and use, design and construction of the Fresno station and designs for the Merced and Bakersfield extensions.

Residents and local officials acknowledge there has long been dissent over the project. Some of the region’s big farm interests have mounted fierce opposition, rallying conservative lawmakers to their cause. But the tenor of the conversation has changed as more jobs are created and structures go up.

When Interstate 5 was conceived in the mid-20th century as a major transportation corridor connecting California from north to south, the Central Valley’s interests were not part of the equation. The route skirts the valley’s rural western edge, and its major population centers — Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield — were left out. In contrast, the high-speed rail line will cut through the heart of the valley, and Fresno and Bakersfield are key transportation hubs along the route.

The first operating segment of the high-speed line will run from Bakersfield in the south to Merced in the north. The vision is to ultimately extend service to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even before those planned expansions, the rail line will intersect with existing passenger rail in Merced and a satellite bus network in Bakersfield to create more seamless nonauto travel options.

Local officials believe that connectivity will open all sorts of horizons: making it easier for people to live inland, where housing is relatively affordable, and still work on the coast. Access to jobs — particularly nonfarm jobs — and top-notch colleges will expand. And a region notably lacking in hospitals and healthcare professionals will have more options.

“To say I’m excited is an understatement,” said Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, a Republican. “High-speed rail is a game-changer for Fresno and the Central Valley in many ways. No. 1, it will reconnect Fresno and the entire valley with the rest of the state and connect us with the California economy.”

In Fresno’s Chinatown, there is a rich history of diverse communities driven together by redlining policies.

Dating to the 1860s, Chinese migrants working on the freight railways were forced west of the tracks. Pretty much anyone who was not white migrated to what became Chinatown, and a thriving community evolved as people from Africa, the Philippines, Mexico and Japan settled in the area. All that began to unravel in the 1960s when urban renewal projects brought freeway construction that severed Chinatown from the rest of the city and forced mass displacement of residents. Businesses shuttered, buildings were abandoned, and those who remained lived amid blight.

Central Fish Co., opened in 1950, is one of the longest-standing businesses that remain. Owner Morgan Doizaki, who took over the shop from his parents, is a big proponent of the rail project. He, along with other business and property owners, formed the nonprofit Chinatown Fresno Foundation to support the rail line and advocate for the neighborhood’s inclusion in Fresno’s transformation. The Fresno station will be built on the site of the city’s historic depot center in downtown, and related renovations involving roads and walkways will connect commuters to Chinatown.

The massive reconstruction is not without challenges. Carniceria y Taqueria La Nueva Reyna, which has served traditional Mexican dishes on Tulare Street for more than a decade, has put up large, colorful banners to let people know they remain open. To get inside, patrons must navigate bright orange netting, maneuvering around missing sidewalks and large machinery. While they have lost some old customers, owner Reyna Cruz said, they’ve also gotten new business from construction workers stopping by for lunch and beverages on their breaks. “There are good times and bad times,” she said as workers streamed in to buy sodas on a Monday afternoon.

Central Fish Co. customers have to navigate a maze of road closures that sometimes box in the store, Doizaki said. Still, he is hopeful. In 2019, he purchased a building in Chinatown that he envisions turning into an apartment and retail complex.

“When the time is right, we’ll be in a position to capitalize on the state’s largest project ever coming into our backyard,” he said. “It’s like a gift.”

Orlando Viloria, who works for Doizaki, is also excited by the rail line’s promise. He envisions day trips to Los Angeles to see his family and them zipping up to see him. “That’s always been my dream,” he said. “I just can’t wait.”

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Did the federal government make the right call giving money to California high-speed rail projects?

The Biden administration announced recently that it would give $6 billion to two high-speed rail projects in California.

While only a fraction of total costs, it was seen by some transportation advocates as a win for California because it is getting a big portion of infrastructure funds largely because it already had two high-speed projects started.

Critics argue the California high-speed rail project, from L.A. to San Francisco (and eventually extended to San Diego), has gone too far over budget and it is time to cut losses and end it.

The L.A. to Las Vegas rail project is seen as more politically favorable because it is private-public partnership. Yet $3 billion from taxpayers puts the project under more scrutiny. Skeptics have questioned if a rail line to Las Vegas is necessary when travelers could just fly or drive. Also, current plans for the Brightline rail have it starting in Rancho Cucamonga, which will likely mean a long commute (by car, Metrolink rail or bus) just to get on it.

Proponents say the U.S. is behind on high-speed rail, which they say will ease traffic construction and reduce pollution.

Q: Did the federal government make the right call giving money to California high-speed rail projects?

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

NO: Stop putting good money after bad. The federal government is subsidizing these projects that even with this additional funding, will not be enough to finish them. More funding will be required that California can’t currently sustain and continues to be a waste of taxpayer money. Cost overruns, poor planning, and poor decision making have unfortunately plagued the rail projects from the start.

David Ely, San Diego State University

NO: The rail project connecting the Bay area to Southern California does not have a high probability of ever being completed. Even completing the Central Valley section will be challenging. The $3 billion going toward this project could be better spent elsewhere. The case for supporting the Brightline West project is stronger given the lower construction barriers and the involvement of a private partner who has demonstrated success in a high-speed rail project in Florida.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

YES: High-speed rail would yield immense economic and environmental benefits. The U.S., with no fully functional high-speed rail service, lags far behind Asia and Europe, where governments have strategically invested in thousands of miles of tracks. Limited public investment and overregulation lead to delays and high costs in the U.S. Buy American laws prevent the use of low-cost imported materials further boosting costs. This is just a start; more ambition and investment are needed.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

NO: In 15 years since the HSR was approved, no rail lines or project conditions have been completed. Projected costs are more than quintupled so far and at current pace will not likely be completed this century. Final costs for the nation’s “biggest boondoggle in history” are impossible to realistically project. Better to put more money into lower-cost projects linking disparate parts of the existing state rail network than sinking more into a bottomless money pit.

Lynn Reaser, economist

NO: Both physical and monetary constraints will doom the two projects. The Brightline project serving the Las Vegas market would make sense if it extended to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles rather than just Rancho Cucamonga. The budget shortfall for the California project will still be about $78 billion. Businesses, residents, and utilities would need to be moved, making the high-speed train only distant vision for the entire San Francisco to Anaheim route.

Phil Blair, Manpower

YES: Many outlandish projects need government support to get off the ground. The differentiating factor here is a private company sees potential in the route. They have experience and will build the line and manage it. These are not the government’s strengths.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

NO: It is time to reevaluate the concept of high speed rail in California. I do not see the social utility of an L.A. to Vegas line: it is not about commuting or economic expansion. The L.A. to San Francisco line is fraught with intractable complications. And the central California route is ridiculous. I like fast trains, but it may be an outdated approach. High tech solutions, involving autonomous, personal vehicles just might make more sense.

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

NO: That’s not to say that high-speed rail isn’t important. Its benefits include reduced congestion, reduced pollution, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. But the U.S. just can’t seem to build rail systems anymore. Cost overruns lead to projects going way over budget, and there are often protracted battles over routing. For California in particular, there is too much urban sprawl, which reduces the density necessary to support rail systems.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

NO: The “train to nowhere” (no offense intended to residents of Merced and Bakersfield) is projected to cost more than $20 billion — several billion dollars more than a previous projection made in 2019 and is likely to grow more expensive. It will duplicate an Amtrak route and go nowhere in helping the L.A. to San Francisco route, as promised by Gov. Newsom. Give back to taxpayers the $4 billion to $5 billion of remaining funds from the original $9 billion bond that was approved.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

YES and NO: Half the $6 billion is well spent, the other half not. The dream of a high-speed rail connecting L.A. to San Francisco is never going to happen, and any new federal contribution to that is throwing good money after bad. By contrast, connecting L.A. to Las Vegas could make economic sense, as evidenced by the substantial commitment of private investors. Building on public-private partnerships is a promising way to temper politician’s dreams with the reality of economic costs and benefits.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

NO: I remain baffled by the exponential cost inflation associated with infrastructure projects. That money could fly more than 60 million people to Vegas without the drive to San Bernardino. I am also uncomfortable with tax dollars substantially subsidizing a private venture. If we believe public, environmentally-friendly transit is a priority, we should consider options that make these projects more economically viable. It may be time to consider new solutions like automated e-buses that don’t require substantial infrastructure.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

NO: Unless the projects are funded by federal resources, and the governor and legislature can commit to doing a better job of staying within budget and on schedule, I can’t support them. While I do believe there is a need to improve transportation in the state, I think there are higher needs and priorities for funding with state resources right now, especially given that California is looking at record budget deficits.

Click here to read that the full article in the SD Union Tribune

More High-Speed Rail Money In Gavin Newsom’s CA budget. Here’s What It Would Do.

California’s high-speed rail would get about $4.2 billion toward finishing the central San Joaquin Valley portion in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed state spending plan, which he unveiled Monday.

The budget describes the money going to the rail from Merced to Bakersfield as advanced work, while dollars would also go to advanced planning for the entire project.

Originally planned from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the rail project has been pared down to connecting the Central Valley without the larger city destinations on either end. In his first state of the state in 2019, Newsom said the project didn’t have the pathway to the longer route.

The project has been criticized, including from Democrats like Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who called for the state to redirect high-speed rail money to urban transportation projects.

In the budget plan presented this week, Newsom said new money was important for “getting those final appropriations and finish(ing) the job in the Central Valley.”

The 119-mile high-speed rail project has been under construction in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties for seven years.

Proposition 1A in 2008 provided a total of more than $9.9 billion to help pay for development and construction of high-speed rail in California.

Ahead of his big announcement Monday, Newsom had previewed that his budget would include spending some of the anticipated surplus on infrastructure, something lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support. On Monday, he announced he wants to spend $9.1 billion on transportation.

Click here to read the full article at the Fresno Bee