What’s the fastest way to change California?

Unless you have the power to set off a major earthquake, your best bet would be to connect Palmdale and Victorville.

These two working-class desert cities aren’t often associated with economic and political power. But building world-class infrastructure to bridge the 50 miles between them might be the most powerful current idea in California. Strong Palmdale-Victorville connections could transform Southern California’s traffic and economy, boost the West’s energy markets, and reconfigure the path of American trade with Asia and the rest of North America It might even save the California high-speed rail project.

Why would such a connection be so valuable? To bridge Palmdale and Victorville is to connect the Antelope and Victor valleys, two fast-growing exurban regions that each are tied to one of the continent’s most important highway corridors. Palmdale’s home region, the Antelope Valley, in L.A. County, now has more than 500,000 people; its highways make it part of the Interstate 5 corridor, from Tijuana to British Columbia. Fifty miles east, the Victor Valley, where Victorville is located, has some 400,000 people, and sits on Interstate 15, which moves Southern Californians to Las Vegas every weekend while transporting goods from San Diego to Alberta, Canada.

Current connections between Interstates 5 and 15 are primitive. Truckers either have to navigate the awful traffic of the L.A. basin, or must find a way across the High Desert. The latter requires driving surface streets, or the traffic-clogged 138, known unofficially as Blood Alley, since it’s one of America’s most dangerous roads.

Good news: This infrastructure gap creates an enormous opportunity.

Which brings me to the High Desert Corridor, a decade-old proposal that is one of the most underrated ideas in California. Backed by a joint powers authority of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, the High Desert Corridor is a public-private partnership to build not one connection between Palmdale and Victorville, but four.

First would come a 56-mile freeway connecting the two cities. Second, the High Desert Corridor would establish a high-speed rail right of way, with the goal of connecting the California High-Speed Rail’s proposed station at Palmdale with the planned, private Xpress West high-speed rail project between Las Vegas and Victorville.

The third piece of the connection involves energy: Underneath the freeway and rail would run electric transmission lines, and above ground, there would be charging and alternative fuel stations for cars and trucks. Finally, the High Desert Corridor would have a 40-mile bikeway between Palmdale and U.S. 395.

If such a corridor were ever built, the impact would go beyond the convenience of connecting the 5 and the 15. The high-speed rail piece of the High Desert Corridor would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles to Las Vegas, inspiring more high-speed rail and economic integration in the West. (Phoenix and Salt Lake City should be next).

Today, international trade is slowed in the L.A. Basin by the dense traffic in the seaports and on the streets. Advocates of the corridor say it could become a new “inland international port,” with logistics facilities, rail, and local airports tied close together to move cargo. Such a port would allow the logistics industry to expand beyond the basin, bringing more jobs to the desert for local residents and shortening their commutes.

At the same time, the project could take off of Los Angeles’ roads, while providing infrastructure to encourage more green technology and transportation. (On the less green side, supporters believe manufacturers will flock to the High Desert Corridor, since it is outside the basin and its air regulation.)

Be skeptical if you wish. The history of the California desert is filled with grand plans that went nowhere. But the High Desert Corridor isn’t grand—it’s a tightly focused connection. The environmental reviews are complete; the next step is figuring out the exact route.

Current estimates of the project’s overall cost are $8 billion. That’s a lot—but high-speed rail is projected to cost nine times that. Supporters had hoped to fund it with federal earmarks, but Congress eliminated them. So the project will require a mix of private and public money, and be built in phases (rail first).

The state should step up. The Bay Area has gotten more than its fair share of infrastructure money, including big funds for the new Bay Bridge. The next great California bridge should be built in the Southern California desert.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.