Marek Warszawski

It’s fair to bag on California’s high-speed rail. But don’t forget how it benefits Fresno

Bagging on high-speed rail is a popular pastime around these parts, and not without good reason.

We taxpayers have spent (and continue to spend) billions of dollars on an infrastructure project that will not connect Fresno to the Bay Area or Los Angeles anytime soon. Perhaps not in our lifetimes. Perhaps never.

I may be a vocal bullet train supporter — mainly for the economic benefits it can bring to this region — but I’m not a Kool-Aid drinker. The “government waste” critique is fair and accurate.

However, one aspect that’s not talked about nearly enough is how high-speed rail is helping connect Fresno to … well, Fresno.

Which is something our elected officials, some of whom count among the project’s harshest and most constant naysayers, have failed to accomplish on their own.

Opinion

This inconsistency became even more apparent this week while reading our story about the opening of a 0.4-mile segment of West Bullard Avenue, part of the Veterans Boulevard project.

The Figarden Loop in northwest Fresno will always hold a special fondness for me. I bought my first house on Lodi Avenue and stayed 14 years. In fact, I’d probably still be living there if not for the traffic. I got tired of getting stuck at railroad crossings (always when you’re in a hurry) and fighting through backups caused by inadequate roads and freeway interchanges.

As bad it was for me, the poor folks living west of Highway 99 in what’s become known as “Forgotten Fresno” had it much, much worse.

Veterans aerial.JPG
An aerial view from a city of Fresno video shows the extent of the Veterans Boulevard project in northwest Fresno, including a new Highway 99 interchange. CITY OF FRESNO

Veterans Boulevard has long been touted as the Roto Rooter for clogged traffic in that part of Fresno — provided the 2.5-mile diagonal from Herndon and Polk avenues, east of 99, to Shaw and Grantland avenues west of the freeway ever gets built. The project includes an overpass above the existing Union Pacific railroad and future high-speed rail tracks as well as well as a new 99 interchange.

One could argue Veterans Boulevard should’ve been built before any housing tracts went up west of 99. But we all know who gives the marching orders in this town. (Hint: It rhymes with envelop her.)

The reason Veterans Boulevard has remained a planned roadway for 45 years, rather than an actual one, is money. The project carries a $138 million price tag. Measure C couldn’t cover that tab by itself. Neither could local impact fees, nor state transportation funds.

But guess what? The California High-Speed Rail Authority is pitching in $28 million, leaving us “only” $10.5 million short. (The hope is that federal transportation funds will fill the gap, though that probably hinges on President Trump forgiving Fresno County for voting for Hillary Clinton.)

Interestingly, the 0.4-mile segment that opened Tuesday cost about $5 million. All but $500,000 came from high-speed rail money.

This is but one way Fresno is cashing in on high-speed rail, regardless if bullet trains ever run on those tracks.

High-speed rail paid to widen and realign Highway 99. It paid for a new freeway exit and overpass at Clinton Avenue. It paid for the new Tuolumne Street bridge, improving circulation in downtown Fresno. It paid for the removal of Motel Drive, one of Fresno’s biggest eyesores. It’s paying for grade separations at existing railway crossings, meaning no more getting stuck in backups at Herndon, Shaw, Olive, McKinley or Tulare.

It has pumped billions more into our local economy in the form of jobs and land acquisitions.

Sure, it’s fair to question and grouse about high-speed rail for all the delays, cost overruns and shoddy business practices. Just don’t say there’s no benefit to Fresno. Because, clearly, we’re seeing it.

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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.
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