Marek Warszawski

If you care about Fresno and want it to thrive, you need to support high-speed rail

I believe in high-speed rail. How can anyone living and working in Fresno not share that sentiment? Nothing else has the potential to take California’s fifth-largest city from an out-of-the-way burg overlooked by most of the state and transform us into something better, something more connected.

I don’t want this to always be a place where high poverty rates and unemployment walk arm-in-arm with low job creation and wages. A place that qualifies for every federal and state grant because we’re so socially and economically disadvantaged that everyone else feels sorry.

I want something better for Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley. Something that only will be achieved by being networked to the rest of California via trains traveling at 220 mph.

“We do need that connectivity,” agreed Lee Ann Eager, CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “I wish I could say we could do that on our own, but that’s not reality.”

The word “transformational” gets thrown around a lot, perhaps too often, but not in this case. Connecting Fresno to San Jose via an hour-long train ride would bring unprecedented growth and opportunity. Someone could live here, where housing costs are low, and work in Silicon Valley, where salaries are high. In addition, more companies would have reason to relocate or expand.

The ripple effects of all this, including a high-speed rail station that would serve as a new hub of revitalized downtown Fresno, are enormous.

California High Speed Rail
A bullet train commute with wi-fi would not be a problem for Bay Area residents who want the benefits of home ownership. ASSOCIATED PRESS

“I talk to businesses that want to expand all the time — all day, every day,” Eager said. “Many of them are in Silicon Valley, where they can’t expand anymore. They can’t expand because there’s no land, it’s too expensive and people can’t afford to live there anymore. They’re looking for what’s that next big thing. …

“Once high-speed rail said they were going to start the project in Fresno, that opened up an entire new world. People calling us and saying, ‘Once that train is up and running, you are that perfect place.’ ”

Unless you’re someone who doesn’t want Fresno to change or flourish, and wants us to remain geographically and culturally isolated, how can you be against that?

Of course it’s one thing to believe in the vision of high-speed rail. What we’re finding out, as costs continue to skyrocket and timetables expand, makes it tougher to believe in the reality.

The 119-mile segment under construction between Madera and Shafter was originally supposed to cost $6 billion. It’s now up to $10.6 billion, according to the Draft 2018 Business Plan released in March and currently under public review.

The first operational segment, between Shafter and San Jose, was supposed to cost $20.7 billion and begin service in 2025. The good news is that segment will now run from Bakersfield proper to San Francisco. The bad news is that it’ll cost $29.5 billion and start operating no sooner than 2029.

This Dec. 6, 2017 file photo shows one of the elevated sections of the high-speed rail under construction in Fresno. RICH PEDRONCELLI AP

What about San Francisco to Los Angeles, the main selling point of the Proposition 1A bond act that California voters approved in 2008? We’ve gone from $34 billion and operational in 2020 to $77.3 billion and operational in 2033.

Most of us will never see a million dollars in our lifetimes, so putting tens of billions into perspective is impossible.

But “How much are we willing to spend on this?” is a question that must be raised. And if funding sources dry up before critical segments are built (i.e. tunneling through Pacheco Pass) or if our next governor isn’t as supportive as the current one, then what will we be left with?

Fresno Assemblyman Jim Patterson, one of high-speed rail’s biggest critics and backer of a comprehensive audit of the project, is already asking.

“My biggest concern is being left with a rump railroad from outside Bakersfield to outside Merced,” Patterson said. “What good will that do?”

I'm a little puzzled by our assemblyman. It’s odd to me how an elected representative can be so stridently against a project that would benefit his constituents more than any other region in the state. Some of those benefits are already being seen and felt.

It can’t just be politics, can it?

“We’re way past the politics of this,” Patterson insisted during our 43-minute conversation. “We’re way past whether you think this is a good idea or I think this is a good idea. … We are on the verge of seeing this thing collapse, and I’m not cheerleading from the sideline.”

Fair enough, and I’ll give Patterson credit for demanding transparency and raising a ruckus over escalating costs and shoddy business practices. In a rush to spend federal stimulus dollars before the September 2017 deadline, the High Speed Rail Authority awarded some contracts prematurely and created a mess for a few local companies.

Brian Kelly, the authority’s new CEO, has acknowledged these mistakes and pledged not to repeat them.

But let’s not overlook how much good high-speed rail is already doing:

  • There are 21 active construction sites in the Valley, employing 1,782 people. Of those workers, 48 percent (862) are Fresno County residents and 73 percent (1,299) are residents of Fresno, Madera, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.

  • Fifty grade separations are being created. For Fresno residents, that means no more being stuck in long backups at Shaw and Herndon avenues as a slow-moving freight train crawls up the tracks.

  • Highway 99 has been widened and realigned with a new overpass at Clinton Avenue and blights removed. Remember the embarrassing eyesore known as Motel Drive? Poof. It’s gone.

These are things that will benefit us regardless if we’re ever connected to the Bay Area or Los Angeles by 220-mph trains.

So, yes, I believe in high-speed rail. And I’ll continue to do so, even as costs and critics mount. Because I want Fresno to thrive. Don't you?