Want jobs for the ‘forgotten man’? Finish high-speed rail

This artist’s rendering shows a high-speed rail train pulling into a station.
This artist’s rendering shows a high-speed rail train pulling into a station. California High-Speed Rail Authority

Saying California’s high-speed rail project is an overpriced boondoggle has become an accepted “fact” for many. As self-styled taxpayer watchdogs carp, Congressional Republicans like Jeff Denham go out of their way to undermine the $64 billion project – calling it the “crazy train” or the “train to nowhere.”

But rail isn’t considered crazy in Europe or Asia. And Fresno, Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties – home to nearly 2 million Californians – are not nowhere. We are, however, too often forgotten. Or ignored.

When high-speed rail first came up, we questioned underlying rider projections. We worried about costs and contracting. But we also saw the game-changing potential of creating a connection between Los Angeles and the Bay Area that also rapidly carried San Joaquin Valley residents into Silicon Valley. We supported the train because such connections are utterly critical to our future.

Consider: The unemployment rate in neighboring Santa Clara County is 3.1 percent. Alameda’s is 3.5 and San Mateo’s, where the ACE train deposits riders, it’s 2.5 percent. But here, in the communities that straddle Highway 99, it’s double those numbers – 7.9 percent of Stanislaus County; 7.1 in San Joaquin, and 10.2 percent in Merced County.

This is as unfair as it is unhealthy.

Reading UC Berkeley Prof. Enrico Moretti’s groundbreaking book “The New Geography of Jobs,” you learn that good jobs are created in hubs, and forging a connection to those hubs is our best hope for prosperity. But that connection is also important for the job hubs.

The median home price in Santa Clara County is $1 million-plus. But in Stanislaus it’s $222,000; in Merced $175,000 and $245,000 in San Joaquin. An acceptable commute creates opportunity here.

High-speed rail is at a perilous juncture. Its director, Jeff Morales, has stepped down, after withstanding more than his share of shots, many of them cheap. His replacement must be able to manage huge construction projects and navigate angry politics.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who inherited the project from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is an enthusiastic supporter, but knows his successor might not be nearly as excited if there’s no secure funding. The most obvious source is the cap-and-trade program, which charges greenhouse gas emitters (refineries, food processors, drivers of gas-powered cars) fees to offset the environmental damage they cause.

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, an East Bay Democrat, is carrying Senate Bill 775 to extend cap-and-trade and lock in funding for certain public works projects, including high-speed rail. SB 775 requires a two-thirds vote, tough for Democrats who recently voted to raise gasoline taxes and other fees by $5 billion a year for road fixes.

Meanwhile, construction has already begun in Fresno, creating real jobs filled mostly by Valley workers from Modesto to Bakersfield. At last count, 380 small businesses had a piece of the project, generating some $1 billion in construction invoices.

Meanwhile, rail-based transportation is taking hold throughout the state.

After Fresno, construction will move up the Valley, eventually reaching Merced.

In Los Angeles, $9 billion is being spent on light rail and subways with another $12 billion expected in coming years.

Then there is the $2 billion project to electrify the CalTrain commuter line between San Jose and San Francisco.

No matter. Some Republicans can’t let go of their phony “facts.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the state’s other 13 House Republicans urged Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to withhold the $650 million federal share for the CalTrain project. After initially complying, Chao wisely reversed herself and said the feds would fully fund their share.

The $20 billion high-speed project from the San Joaquin Valley into Silicon Valley won’t carry commuters until 2025. But it is already carrying the hopes for a region that desperately needs revitalization. It’s not a boondoggle. It’s not crazy. It’s only fair.