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High-Speed Rail’s Central Valley Section:              Build It–And Who Will Come?

| November 26, 2010
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In a favorite novel, an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella hears a disembodied voice speaking to him from a cornfield. “If you build it, he will come,” the voice says. And thus begins a cross-country fantasy that’s equal parts baseball and personal redemption.

That’s fiction. Anything goes. But it’s a little surprising to find that the California High-Speed Rail Authority seems to be adopting the “if you build it” approach to choosing the first segment of the state’s bullet-train route.

Proposed rail segment (click for larger map)

Proposed rail segment (click for larger map)

Or maybe not so surprising, if you step back. Money talks, and the authority is hearing voices, too—specifically, the commanding tones of the Federal Railroad Administration. Earlier this fall, FRA not only gave California the good news that it was awarding $715 million to help get high-speed rail rolling, but also that the money would need to be spent in the San Joaquin Valley. (Why there? Despite the wealth of published material, from the agency itself and from some decent reporters, we don’t see explicit reasoning beyond the following speculation: there’s less political opposition to high-speed rail in the Valley than in the Bay Area; it would be cheaper and less complicated to build the initial segment in the Valley than in the heavily populated Los Angeles-San Diego corridor; and, with the Valley’s economy in a prolonged deep slump because of the collapse of housing construction, it needs a big economic shot in the arm.)

The federal rail people have left it to California, though, to decide exactly where in the San Joaquin Valley the first segment should be built. The two choices were a piece from Merced to Fresno, about 60 miles, or one from Fresno to Bakersfield, 110 miles or so. Earlier this week, the High-Speed Rail Authority staff announced a choice: a hybrid segment from Borden, a hamlet on the outskirts of Madera, 20 miles north of Fresno, to Corcoran, 45 miles south of Fresno. The authority’s board, which faces an end-of-the-year deadline to get its hands on the new federal grant, will consider the recommendation at its board meeting next Thursday, Dec. 2.

If Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s reaction to the segment proposal is anything to go by, the rail board is going to hear from some angry people. Cardoza, a Democrat whose 18th Congressional District includes Merced—a town left out of the rail authority’s proposal—issued a press release accusing the authority of a “bait and switch” and demanding an investigation into its route-selection process. (Cardoza’s not the only one who’s upset. See the California High Speed Rail Blog: “Merced HSR Supporters Angry at Construction Proposal.”)

Cardoza’s rant also raises a point that we wonder about, too: Who’s going to ride a line with one end approximately in the middle of nowhere—sorry, Borden; nothing personal—and the other end anchored in a town known to the outside world mostly as the home of a state prison?

The answer may in fact be “no one.” The laws and regulations that control the federal funding for the project require that the cash go into projects with “operational independence” or “independent utility.” In the words of a High-Speed Rail Authority staff report on the new segment, “A project is considered to have operational independence ‘if, upon being implemented, it will provide tangible and measurable benefits, even if no additional investments in the same service are made.’ ” We’re not experts, but that sounds like a working railroad to us; we can just imagine the Valley landscape blurring past on that 66-mile, 20-minute trip from greater Madera to Corcoran. (The staff report also notes that the new segment would pass muster under federal law if all it does is enhance Amtrak service. Currently, the section in question is part of Amtrak California’s San Joaquin train from Oakland to Bakersfield.)

But maybe it’ll just be a fancy set of tracks, waiting to get connected to something else. That’s the conclusion you come to when you hear what Roelof van Ark, the authority’s CEO, has to say about it. Earlier this month, when the federal government’s Central-Valley-first requirement was disclosed, Mike Rosenberg of the San Mateo Times quoted van Ark on the importance of the first segment (emphasis ours):

” ‘We have to build a system that is going to be operable as soon as possible and that means
building many miles of track that are connected to each other,’ van Ark said.

“But a Central Valley segment will have no operational significance — van Ark said major population centers need to be linked and the agency will not bother starting service there.

” ‘We will not have trains when we build this first segment,”‘ he said.”

If they build this first segment as planned, who will come? Maybe we’ll hear some more concrete answers at the rail authority’s board meeting next week.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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