Marek Warszawski

He still believes in what high-speed rail can do for Fresno, but is starting to lose faith

Everything you need to know about California’s high speed rail project

The California high speed rail project is projected to connect eight of California's ten largest cities when it is completed.
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The California high speed rail project is projected to connect eight of California's ten largest cities when it is completed.

November left me both optimistic and pessimistic about the future of high-speed rail in California.

Which one? Guess that depends on which day.

The month began with a well-attended open house to unveil the city of Fresno’s vision of what downtown Fresno could look like if and when bullet trains start zooming up and down the San Joaquin Valley en route to San Jose and Los Angeles.

Conceptual renderings of the Fresno Station District (i.e. the 5-minute “walk zone” surrounding the proposed high-speed rail station at Mariposa and G streets) depicted new and renovated buildings, parks and open-space plazas and vibrant street scenes.

The design, we were told by AECOM senior urban designer Catherine Tang Saez, would provide a “warm welcome” to the Central Valley for high-speed rail passengers and “re-position” downtown Fresno as the “true hub of the city and the true heart of the Central Valley.”

Considering much of the area is currently occupied by rundown buildings, dirt lots and streets with hardly any foot traffic, trying to picture Mariposa and G as a hustling, bustling hub of anything requires some imagination.

But it’s certainly a grand dream. One that would unquestionably benefit California’s fifth-largest city.

A look at the area proposed for a future high-speed rail station in downtown Fresno

Two weeks later, a very different picture emerged. A report by state auditor Elaine Howle upbraided the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s flawed business practices and decision making.

A haste to meet federal funding deadlines resulted in $600 million in cost overruns and significant time delays for three active project sites along the 120-mile segment between Madera and Bakersfield. And if the pace of construction doesn’t accelerate, the state may be forced to pay back $3.5 billion to Uncle Sam.

Nothing in the audit was particularly revelatory — delays and skyrocketing costs have been the norm since the voters passed Proposition 1A in 2008 — but they did provide a fresh gust of wind for high-speed rail’s many critics. Fresno Assemblyman Jim Patterson is chief among them.

“This audit has shone the light of accountability on where the authority is now, and it’s in a state of collapse,” Patterson said.

Readers know my views. I support high-speed rail, warts and all, because nothing else has the potential to transform Fresno from an out-of-the-way burg anchored with low-paying jobs and high poverty rates into a more connected and prosperous city.

Not a cluster of warehouses on Highway 99, not a new dam behind Millerton Lake — nothing.

“We will finally be a part of that economic growth in California,” Fresno County Economic Development Corporation CEO Lee Ann Eager told me earlier this year.

Who around here wouldn’t want that? Only those who have a vested interest in things staying as they are.

If Fresno ever gets connected to San Jose or Los Angeles by a 220 mph bullet train, then our fair city would no longer be so isolated. (Fresno, keep in mind, is the largest city in the nation not on the interstate highway system.) More people would take advantage of our relatively low cost of living and commute to higher-paying jobs.

This scares the bejeebers out of certain people. Those who don’t care nearly as much about Fresno’s prosperity as they do about maintaining power and influence.

The bottom line is this: If more people start moving here from more liberal parts of the state, the worse it gets for our city’s old-guard conservatives.

Instead of a red island (purple, actually) in a vast blue sea, Fresno would become more politically aligned with other parts of California. You know, the state that recently elected only seven Republicans to the House of Representatives compared to 45 Democrats. (I’m not calling District 21 for either party just yet.)

In September 2017, California High-Speed Rail Authority board chairman Dan Richard and vice chairman Tom Richards discussed issues that have delayed progress on construction of the statewide bullet-train project.

A letter I received last month from a woman named Martha, in response to one of my Devin Nunes columns, makes that point plain:

“Mr. (Andrew) Janz would ruin the little pride we have left because the Valley is Red and we will never be Blue unless you and he have your way. I pray to God that never happens,” she wrote.

(Nevermind that Fresno County voted 49.2 percent for Hillary Clinton and 43.2 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.)

Forget government waste. This is what local critics of high-speed rail, most of whom are staunch conservatives, fear the most.

To be fair, not all of them. While I’ve been critical of Mayor Lee Brand about the parks tax and open space, he is also a high-speed rail proponent. Good for him for putting the interests of Fresno first.

Of course, it’s one thing to believe in a grand vision and quite another to pull it off. This is the predicament the $77 billion project (for now) currently finds itself.

The majority of California voters supported the concept of high-speed rail. But after a decade of bad press and little progress, except in the central San Joaquin Valley, a region most of the state doesn’t give a fig about, would they do so again?

I’m skeptical.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
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