Why does the Legislative Analyst’s Office hate the Central Valley?

If you read Mac Taylor’s latest screed against the proposed high-speed rail system, you’d think that the only way its construction would make sense is if it connected the Bay Area and Los Angeles without touching down in any those inconveniently rustic spots between the two megaplexes.

You know, kind of like the airlines do now.

Granted, his newest report, which could be titled “Why High-Speed Rail Is Still a Terrible Idea,” lacks some of the snarky nastiness at the thought of a “train to nowhere” connecting Bakersfield, Fresno and other Central Valley cities he featured in his report last May. But that’s only because changes in the business plan now call for putting early money into the “bookends” of the system: San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It’s not just the LAO, of course. Drop into virtually any high-speed rail meeting and you’ll hear complaints about starting the rail line in the “boondocks” of the Central Valley. Too many folks on the urban coast can’t see why anyone would want to go to Bakersfield or Fresno, unless it’s to get a good deal on raisins.

“I have no desire to visit either place and I’m sure the majority of people agree that there’s nothing of interest in Fresno or Bakersfield,” wrote one commenter on the Sacramento Bee’s story about Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, defending the proposed system.

And then there was the suggestion that the rail line to Anaheim be dropped to save money. The outcry was so loud that the authority hastily put the line to Anaheim back in the latest business plan for the system.

Here’s a little-known fact, at least to people who spend their lives in the Bay Area or Los Angeles. Both Fresno (510,365) and Bakersfield (347,483) have more people than Anaheim (336,265).

And that’s the point that gets missed in too much of the continuing argument about high-speed rail. The purpose of the system isn’t just to get people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours. It’s also designed to, for the first time, truly link the fast-growing communities of the Central Valley with the rest of the state.

The prospect of fast, convenient connections with the Bay Area and Southern California could spark dynamic growth in a long neglected and often ignored part of the state, something that will benefit all of California.

Sure, the cost and funding for high-speed rail are legitimate questions that need to be debated, although as Richard said, if large-scale government construction projects waited until every dollar was guaranteed, nothing would ever get built.

But there’s way too much of a “what’s in it for me” attitude surrounding the complaints about high-speed rail, with people arguing that since the system isn’t anything that will directly help them or their communities, it shouldn’t be built, regardless of what it might mean for California as a whole.

That’s not the attitude that built the huge state water project, California’s university and college system, BART or any of the bridge and highway projects that have made the state what it is today. Each was a visionary, uber-expensive project that ultimately made California – all of California — a better place to live.

If high-speed rail falls into that category, the only question for Californians and the Legislature should be how best it can be built, not whether it should it be built at all.

John Wildermuth is a long-time writer on California politics.