In reporting on the move by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to scrutinize the high speed rail, Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton mentioned a “Plan B” for rail discussed by the proponents of the audit request, Democratic Senator Jim Beall and Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson. The idea is to run a rail from the San Joaquin Valley to the Silicon Valley, which always made sense as a better first route for the train. In fact, the idea of more readily connecting California’s coastal regions with the Central Valley was a proposal offered in Richard Riordan’s campaign for governor in 2002.

Working with Joe Rodota (author of the soon to be released book on Watergate) on Riordan’s policy team, we helped Riordan put together an idea of building highways and possibly trains across California to connect the west and east of the state. The plan was to help boost the economy of the Central Valley, which often struggles in economic terms compared to California’s coastal areas. 

Beall and Patterson have a similar goal in mind, according to Skelton. As the Times columnist put it: “The San Joaquin has lots of land and affordable housing. Silicon has high-paying tech jobs. Beall envisions an alliance between two top engineering schools, Fresno State and San Jose State, and huge opportunities for economic development.”

While safety net programs reduce poverty in inland areas according to a Public Policy Institute of California factsheet, it is telling that 14.2% more people in the Central Valley and Sierra would be poor, compared with 4.5% more in the Bay Area without the programs. In other words, poverty is high in the Central Valley and can be ameliorated to some extent with job creation that likely would be a by-product of creating transportation channels. Connecting the east and west of the state would be a plus for residents in the inland areas by opening avenues for economic growth and jobs.

In the meantime, some of the high paying jobs in the Silicon Valley area would be more accessible to people living in the Central Valley.

Furthermore, an east-west rail route done first would have served as a model for incorporating high speed rail in California and, perhaps, helped with one of the major problems the current high speed rail project is having—finances.

A route from east to west, shorter than the currently planned phase one, connecting the booming Silicon Valley area with the job hungry Central Valley could serve as a powerful incentive for building a larger rail system if that east-west line showed economic promise.  And, since that rail line is shorter, it would be less expensive to complete.

Since such a line would help the employees and companies in the Silicon Valley, financial help from some of the richest companies in the world might be secured to help finance the project.

History, of course, tells a different tale than what could have been. Riordan did not advance in his quest for the governorship and the high speed rail line’s first phase was designated north-south instead of east-west.

Is it too late to look to “Plan B” if the current high speed rail plan is found wanting by the coming audit?