Opinion

Without high-speed rail, the Central Valley will fall further behind

Imagine if just one critical public investment by California could help us fight climate change, increase affordable housing and create economic opportunity in parts of the state that need it most. That project already exists: high-speed rail.

Years ago, state leaders made a commitment to build high-speed rail to reduce traffic congestion on our highways and in our airports, to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and to provide new mobility options for California’s growing population.

Think about the future we face if California fails to move forward with this investment. By the year 2050, about 50 million people will live in California. Our freeways will be gridlocked with idling vehicles stuck on dilapidated roads and bridges. Every day at LAX and SFO will feel like the day before Thanksgiving with delays, stress and frustration.

Only the super-rich will afford to live and work in San Francisco, Silicon Valley or Los Angeles. Meanwhile, residents of the Central Valley will be further isolated from the rest of the state by geographic, transportation and economic barriers. The income gap between Central California and the more globally connected coastal regions will be impossible to bridge. At the same time, working families in all regions will still struggle without access to affordable housing or reliable transportation.

This scenario would represent our state’s lack of fortitude to achieve environmental, housing and transportation goals. Its legacy for our children would say we tried, but only halfway because it was too hard. What if our predecessors had quit before completing the Golden Gate Bridge, the State Water Project or the Bay Area Rapid Transit system?

This is not a future I want to imagine. Labor and business representatives are working with forward-thinking elected leaders to tackle issues that have caused a dire shortage of affordable housing. Efforts are underway to link the economies of the Bay Area to the Central Valley region to create more balanced, diversified and resilient economies in both regions.

This link can only be strengthened by the mobility and access of a bullet train, powered entirely by renewable energy, connecting San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin via the Central Valley and then extending to Sacramento and San Diego via the Inland Empire. There is a direct relationship between this new mobility and our goals for economic development, sustainable growth and efforts to expand job opportunities in the Central Valley.

The Sacramento Bee recently reported that in 2016 more than 110,000 people commuted each day from the Central Valley to the Bay Area. People are choosing to live in Fresno or Merced, where housing is more affordable. They “super commute” to the Silicon Valley or San Francisco to work in higher-paying, knowledge-based jobs. Households making more than $150,000 a year nearly doubled in Sacramento, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

Leaders see these trends, as well as the challenges and opportunities they present. They see high-speed rail as an integral strategy to link the Central Valley economy with the Bay Area and, importantly, with the Los Angeles basin.

Construction of the system is well underway in the Central Valley. The money being invested now has created thousands of good-paying jobs and created opportunities for hundreds of businesses, many of them small and disadvantaged. These benefits also flow to disadvantaged communities; of the 427 small businesses working on the project, 115 are located in those communities. As of mid-2017, about $2 billion in labor income was created and between $5 and $6 billion of wider economic benefits rippled through the economy, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2018 business plan.

Despite this progress, some people are questioning whether to stay the course on high-speed rail. We need to keep our eye on what it means for our future – after the system is built and is carrying thousands of people up and down the state every year. Beyond the jobs created to build the system, think about what it will mean to our ability to keep California moving.

Without a modern transportation system linking our state’s economic centers, we will not remain economically competitive. Similarly, we cannot address high poverty rates and record income inequality unless all Californians can participate in our prosperity. High-speed rail will help carry all Californians into this better future.

High-speed rail demonstrates its value every single day in countries around the world – China, Japan, France, Spain, Germany – even Uzbekistan. California ranks high on the list of global economies, but it will not make a difference to working families if it can’t provide access to good jobs, affordable housing and an environmentally safe and efficient transportation system.

High-speed rail connecting communities across our state is an ambitious and daunting task. But the immense challenges we face from climate change, rising inequality, and lack of housing affordability will not be solved by small measures or easy fixes. We must be visionary and steadfast as we chart a course into a brighter future for all Californians.

Cesar Diaz is legislative and political director of the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California and a participant in the The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. He can be contacted at cdiaz@sbctc.org. Find the series (with more Monday on Gov. Jerry Brown’s biggest successes and failures) at sacbee.com/influencers.

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