Marek Warszawski

Bullet train carried promise of a more prosperous Fresno. Those hopes have been derailed

Gov. Gavin Newsom: ‘Let’s level about the high-speed rail’

Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.
Up Next
Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.

If I were living and writing in the Bay Area, Los Angeles or anywhere else in the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom would be getting an attaboy for poleaxing the bullet train.

Based on how the project has been floundering, about time.

But I’m not. My perspective is rooted in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley, the city and region that stands the most to gain from high-speed rail.

So how else to react to Tuesday’s brake pull except with disappointment and a tinge of exasperation? Not necessarily directed at Newsom – he only inherited this mess – more how a place with the economic might and innovative minds of California can flub this so badly.

If only the authors of the original bond act had the foresight to stipulate that China Railway head up design and construction. Then things might still be on track instead of never leaving the station. Scratch that, we haven’t built any.

Dashing Valley dreams

Since 2008, when voters approved Proposition 1A, high-speed rail has represented the promise of a better, more connected future for Fresno.

Instead of being the largest city in the U.S. not located on the interstate highway system, with an airport that can’t attract Southwest or any other discount airline, we were to be the hub of the most ambitious public works project in this country’s history.

Even when the Fresno to Los Angeles segment got put on the back burner and San Francisco became San Jose, our enthusiasm didn’t dampen.

With Fresno and Silicon Valley separated by a hassle-free ride, more companies would expand operations here giving Valley workers better access to higher-paying jobs. And the new station would be the bustling hub of a revitalized downtown, goosing property values and spurring much-needed development.

It was a pretty intoxicating dream. Enough to suspend, at least temporarily, the usual skepticism about such matters.

Which is why Newsom’s first gubernatorial utterances about high-speed rail were, while not completely unexpected, nonetheless painful to hear.

“Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” he said. “I wish there were.”

Me, too, Gav. Me, too.

Thomas Richards, vice chair of the high-speed rail authority, believes construction of the transportation system will create opportunities in the short term and even bigger ones in the long term.

Many questions

Newsom insisted the high-speed rail segment currently under construction would be completed – no way he’s returning $3.5 billion in federal stimulus money to President Trump – but that scenario only raises more questions.

For example, will high-speed trains ever run on those tracks? Or will the new segment only allow for a faster version of Amtrak between Merced and Bakersfield?

Plus, if you read the fine print of the project’s 2018 business plan, you’ll find the so-called Central Valley segment actually runs from outside Madera (where the tracks would veer west toward Pacheco Pass) to Shafter.

Madera is some 33 miles south of Merced, and Shafter is about 18 miles north of Bakersfield. So going from Merced to Bakersfield, as stated by Newsom in his speech, would surely add a few billion to that segment’s $10.6 billion estimated cost..

And perhaps most important of all: What does high-speed rail between Merced and Bakersfield really accomplish?

Newsom must flesh out those answers. After having the rug pulled out from under us, we deserve a fuller explanation.

At least he knows we’re here

One thing about our new governor is he doesn’t seem to regard the Valley as Nowheresville. He understands there’s more to us than ag, air pollution and tumbleweeds.

“Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield, and communities in between are more dynamic than many realize,” Newsom said during his speech.

“The Valley may be known around the world for agriculture, but there is another story ready to be told. A story of a region hungry for investment, a workforce eager for more training and good jobs, Californians who deserve a fair share of our state’s prosperity.”

Perhaps that’s just Newsom’s way of letting us down easy. But in 4 minutes and 30 seconds, he paid more lip service to our region than his predecessor did in eight years.

Bright side

Even if high-speed rail is “dead,” as the project’s short-sighted opponents gleefully exclaim, Fresno will still see tangible benefits from work that’s already being done.

Last week, while driving north on Highway 99 during rush hour, traffic was backed up all the way to the Herndon Avenue exit. Why? Because a freight train was puttering along at 3 mph.

In total, 50 grade separations are being created. For Fresnans, that means no more getting stuck in backups at Herndon, Shaw, Olive, McKinley or Tulare. It also means a wider freeway, new bridges and overpasses and removal of eyesores such as Motel Drive.

According to Lee Ann Eager, President/CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, high-speed rail has already delivered $20 billion in economic impact.

“We got rid of a lot of blight in this process that there was no way to get rid of unless a large project like this would come through,” Eager said.

So there is a bright side, if your eyes can see past the rhetoric. But for those of us who dreamed of bullet trains carrying Fresno and the Valley to a more prosperous future, those hopes have been derailed.

Related stories from Fresno Bee

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.