We still believe high-speed rail will carry us into the future

An employee of the California High-Speed Rail Authority walks along the deck of a bridge being built over the San Joaquin River near Fresno.
An employee of the California High-Speed Rail Authority walks along the deck of a bridge being built over the San Joaquin River near Fresno. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Merced is not “nowhere.” And the high-speed rail project is not dead.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his State of the State speech Tuesday that he wants to “focus” the high-speed rail project on a link between two Valley cities, a lot of people heard that to mean the project was dead. Having long referred to it as the “train to nowhere,” they saw scaling back the project to 170 miles as, well, a detour to oblivion.

The national media, who usually show up in our Valley only when there’s been a gruesome murder or because they want to meet some genuine working Californians, quickly announced the project was dead. President Trump tweeted joyously that California has been “forced to cancel the massive bullet train project.” He wanted the money the federal government invested in the project – the same money, presumably, that Rep. Jeff Denham tried to give away to other states – returned.

That’s not the way we see it. Newsom’s refocusing of this project actually makes it better for us.

Just three years ago, Merced was an afterthought. In its first phase, the train was supposed to run southeast from San Jose, through Chowchilla, then onto Fresno. It would get to Merced, uh, someday. Now, Merced is the ultimate destination.

That speaks volumes – not about fast trains, but about the role this region is destined to play in the Valley’s future.

UC Merced is already a hub of innovation – both in its engineering classrooms and the chancellor’s office, where Dorothy Leland figured out a way to expand and improve the campus on an accelerated timeline. Bringing a fast train closer to a fast-moving campus is as symbolic as it is important.

To get the train, uh, back on track, the governor appointed Turlock native Lenny Mendonca to head the High Speed Rail Authority. Mendonca made his mark as a senior partner in one of the world’s foremost “management” firms (McKinsey & Company), which helps companies, cities and even nations build enormous projects. Projects like high-speed rail. Appointing Mendonca doesn’t signal high-speed rail is being abandoned, it’s a sure indication that it’s going forward.

“Both the Governor and Mr. Mendonca understand that transportation and economic development go hand-in-hand and know that the high-speed rail project, when completed, will be a significant economic boost to the Valley,” said Leland through a press release.

Leland’s not alone. Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, who represented Merced County when she wrote the high-speed rail legislation nearly two decades ago, was, well, “ecstatic.”

“The Governor has recognized that High Speed Rail is part of the housing shortage solution,” she said. “His leadership ... gives the communities that surround the train’s route the needed assurances of the viability of the project.”

When Newsom said “The project would cost too much and take too long,” critics heard it differently than we did.

Instead of abandoning the project, this governor is more worried that it’s moving too slow. He likes to go fast; we figure 220 mph is just about his speed. Ours, too.

We’re not blind to the problems plaguing this project from the start – the cost overruns, attempts to set up sweetheart construction deals, wildly optimistic rider projections. But if it’s going to be built, we’re glad it’s being built in the Valley.

Don’t forget, within the next decade Merced will become the final stop for the ACE train carrying commuters across the Altamont. Riders from Modesto, Ceres and Turlock will have a quick ride down to Merced where they can pick up an even faster ride south. That’s not a coincidence. We remain all aboard for this ride.