With Gov. Newsom’s decision to limit high speed rail to a San Joaquin Valley-only route, the question must be asked: did Fresno just take a bullet to its economic dreams, or did we dodge one instead?
The answer depends on one’s expectations for our Valley. Are we California’s next megalopolis, another major agricultural region to be paved over like Los Angeles and San Jose before us, or do we embrace our inland identity, one with a unique role to play in the world’s weather-destabilized future?
In an HSR-enhanced valley, the line is completed at least as far as Gilroy over Pacheco Pass, giving Fresno at long last a tenuous connection to Silicon Valley, a lifeline over the hill to that promised land of high-tech jobs and riches. And those industry giants, in return, gain the expanded commuter shed they have long sought for their housing-deprived region.
Following California’s business-as-usual growth scenario, urban sprawl and leapfrog development can continue unabated, shaped marginally by water supply, basic infrastructure, and the pliability of local politicians. The edges of valley cities and towns host expansive bedroom neighborhoods for people commuting to distant jobs, gradually filling in the “blank spaces” of farmland in between.
Or so went the 1990s plan.
But a funny thing happened on our way to the future: climate change. Rapid climate change. The October report from the U.N. on impacts of a 1.5 C increase in global average temperatures, telling the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and entirely before 2050 or prepare to face runaway global warming, changes everything.
Earlier reports explored impacts of a 2.0 C increase, but in their response to island nations’ request for an examination of the lower threshold, scientists expressed surprise at learning severe impacts will begin sooner than previously expected. Even at the lower level, irreversible negative feedback loops of methane release, ice melt, and more can be unleashed. If so, humankind’s reduction efforts will be overwhelmed.
Presumably someone in the governor’s office took a hard look at both HSR’s untenable financial situation and California’s now outdated climate change investment plan. Newsom is cutting the state’s losses on both fronts.
With this latest alteration, which extends the track into downtown Bakersfield at its southern end and up to university-laden Merced as its northern terminus, the Valley just got handed its blueprint for climate change adaptation and long-term growth.
It’s a plan for the future that needs to be tied to watersheds rather than commuter-sheds, land conservation instead of sprawl, and climate adaptation, not denialism. Ours is a regional, Bakersfield-to-Stockton economy and environment, not a San Diego-to-San Francisco one.
Due to our limited population, 220 mph trains will not streak down those tracks anytime soon, if ever, but Amtrak trains’ top speeds can jump from 79 to 125 mph. For supporters of smart growth, the Bakersfield, Hanford, Fresno and Merced stops just became the Valley mainline’s transit-oriented development hubs.
And in a climate change-fueled world of continuing economic and environmental destabilization coupled with a surging global population and climate change refugee crises, predicted to reach 100 million people by mid-century, the Valley’s amazing capacity for food production will become increasingly critical.
Rather than squandering our resources producing ingredient items for processed foods or paving over any more prime farmland, let’s plan to help sustain a hungry world by growing essential foods through sustainable farming methods that sequester carbon in crops and soils.
All of which will take significant subsidies. So the sooner the state stops throwing $100 million in Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds at high speed rail every year, $1.6 billion since 2013, the better.
It’s time to invest in the electrification of farm and construction equipment, heavy duty trucks and buses, and every home and building; as well as affordable housing and transit, groundwater recharge systems, and — most important — climate change adaptation planning.
The San Joaquin Valley can lead the nation in implementing a fair and just transition from old, exploitative practices in land development, energy and farming to a sustainable, healthy environment tied to a carbon-free, agricultural-based economy.
Our future does not lie over a hill. It’s right in front of us, all around us.
Kevin Hall is a Fresno resident and graduate of Fresno State. He formerly reported on farm issues for trade publications and is now an air-quality activist.