Marek Warszawski

Gov. Newsom, keep Bay Area vultures away: Bullet train money is Valley money

You had to know this was coming.

From the moment Gov. Gavin Newsom teetered on high-speed rail, it was only a matter of time until politicians in California’s more populous, wealthier regions would try to get their hands on money earmarked for the San Joaquin Valley.

That time is now. As reported this week by the Los Angeles Times, Southern California and Bay Area lawmakers are busy scheming ways to divert billions from the bullet train to their own regional transportation projects.

“I like the concept,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told the newspaper. “Any project that doesn’t have a significant amount of service to the largest areas in the state doesn’t make much sense.”

I’m sure that sentiment will go over well with Rendon’s constituents in Los Angeles County. But to those of us living in that part of California that prosperity forgot, they feel like the proverbial middle finger.

More than just linking Los Angeles and San Francisco with 220 mph trains, high-speed rail represents the promise of a better, more-connected future for Fresno.

Instead of our economy being almost completely reliant on agriculture and distribution centers, more companies would expand to California’s fifth-largest city giving locals better access to higher-paying jobs. The impact on downtown Fresno in particular would be immense.

No question reality has fallen well short of the dream. Eleven years after voters approved Proposition 1A, the bullet train has been beset with cost overruns, legal challenges and general ineptness.

And now the vultures are circling.

In February, Newsom scaled back the original vision by only pledging completion of high-speed rail between Bakersfield and Merced. Now, according to the Times story, legislators want to whittle that down to between Shafter and Madera.

Even more importantly, they seek to delay the installation of a high-voltage electrical system. Meaning the trains that run on those 119 miles of tracks through the Valley would be diesel-powered. The total savings of between $5 billion and $6 billion would be redirected to rail projects in Southern California and the Bay Area.

If that happens, it’s hard to see high-speed rail ever getting on track.

The question now becomes, who in the state Capitol will protect our region’s interests?

It certainly won’t be Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson, an avowed bullet train disparager. Democratic Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, who serves on the board of the High-Speed Rail Authority, is a staunch supporter but prefers to work through channels rather than be drawn into a war of words.

But, really, the onus is on Newsom. During his brief tenure, the governor has made several trips to the Valley and seems to understand we have more to offer than ag and air pollution.

“The Valley may be known around the world for agriculture, but there is another story ready to be told,” Newsom said during his State of the State address. “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.”

If Newsom means what he says, he must figure out a way to keep Southern California and Bay Area politicians from diverting that $5 billion to $6 billion for their own purposes.

Because high-speed rail in the Valley is about more than transportation. It’s about transformation.

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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.