Did the Central Valley Blow It on High-Speed Rail?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

California’s approach to high-speed rail was fundamentally about helping the San Joaquin Valley—by providing it with a signature project, with construction jobs, and with better connections to the rest of the state.

But, with high-speed rail in trouble, it’s time to face facts. The valley looked this gift horse in the mouth. If the project ultimately fails, people in the valley won’t have to look beyond their own mirrors to identify who was at fault.

High-speed rail had few enthusiasts in the valley. Voters tended to oppose it. Media and civic groups were more likely to criticize it than champion it. And many of the valley’s most powerful politicians opposed it. And  Kevin McCarthy, Trump stooge and House Republican leader, sought to sabotage it.

Why? Many reasons. High-speed rail was disruptive to agricultural interests, given the way the route cut through farming land. The politics were bad for the conservative valley, where roads and driving are the way to get around. And anti-government ideologues loved to pick at the project as a target.

But the project was a huge transfer of dollars from the rest of the state to the valley. And people in the valley would have gained a disproportionate share of the benefits from construction and the service itself.

Yes, some in the valley got behind it—namely some leaders in Fresno. But more typical was the reaction in places like Hanford and Wasco, where city leaders opposed it even though they might have gotten stations on the line. 

So the valley should put a hold on its outrage at news reports that legislative leaders in Southern California and the Bay Area are remaking the project to send more of its money and benefits to their own regions. Such a shift only makes sense, since the valley doesn’t seem to want it.

And the next time leaders in the San Joaquin Valley complain about being left behind, they should be reminded that it’s hard to help people who won’t help themselves.

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