Have any grand but unfocused ambitions? Have an idea but no strategy to execute it? How about any half-finished projects clogging up your garage?

Send them to Merced. That’s what the state of California does.

Perhaps this is because it’s so convenient: a city of 83,000 people in the center of the Central Valley, and so close to our most hallowed outdoor place that it’s called the “Gateway to Yosemite.” But whatever the reason, Merced is taking on a role as the self-storage unit for California’s abandoned dreams.

Earlier this month Gov. Gavin Newsom turned to Merced as he decided to slow down the state’s high-speed rail project. In his state of the state speech, the governor said that there wasn’t enough money to complete the first phase of the rail project, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. At least not yet. Instead, Newsom declared that high-speed rail would start at Bakersfield and find its first northern terminus at Merced.

The governor soon faced a firestorm of criticism about his retreat, including an effort by President Trump to claw back rail funding. And the governor has since claimed he’s still committed to the entire statewide project. But if high-speed rail does end in Merced, at least there will be sufficient land for a large grave, with a tombstone large enough to catalogue modern California’s failures of strategy and urgency.

High-speed rail was first proposed in the 1980s. In 1996, the state created a high-speed rail authority. In 2008, voters approved a bond to fund part of its cost, and in 2009, the feds gave the project a couple extra billions via the stimulus act. But in 2019, this state-of-the-art transit system might only reach Merced. A Bay Area-based rail system called ACE, launched in 1995, also might reach Merced, but by 2027 at the earliest.

Of course, Merced needs all the help it can get—it suffered the largest drops in home values in the country during the Great Recession. And it’s done well with another project the state left it—the University of California Merced—though that’s a long and painful story too.

The UC announced it would open a 10th campus in 1988. But it wasn’t until 1995 that it decided to make Merced the location. And, because of budget politics and environmental litigation, UC Merced didn’t open until 2005.

Only now does the campus feel like it is ramping up to full build-out, as part of a project to double its size, add research labs and fitness facilities, and accommodate 10,000 students by 2020.

Unfortunately, UC Merced’s expansion has been an isolated case in California. The state’s public university systems have simply not grown fast enough, leaving the state with an estimated shortage of two million college graduates to meets its future economic needs. In many years, thousands of Californians who are eligible for our public universities find there is no space for them, and just 55 percent of Californians who do enroll in universities are finishing their degrees at those places.

The good news is that the city of Merced is feeling some benefits.

In addition to expanding its main campus on the city outskirts, the university has also expanded downtown, first by renting space and then last year by opening a $45 million Downtown Campus Center that consolidates its business functions. The building, and the new spending from university workers, has been inspiring new investment in downtown that includes a hotel and a renovation of The Mainzer, a historic theater.

UC Merced’s downtown center is a short walk to the likely site of its high-speed rail station, where Martin Luther King Jr. Way meets State Route 99. From that spot, it’s possible to imagine Merced as a model 21st century crossroads, with integrated transit that gives educated workers a way to get to meetings and even jobs on the coast, while reducing greenhouse gases. Merced’s relatively cheap land and lower cost of living might attract more people looking for housing, and its university could double or triple in size, radically raising Central Valley education levels.

But for all that to happen, high-speed rail would have to continue past Merced into the Bay Area, California universities would have to transform themselves radically into larger and more generous institutions, and the state would have to provide the foresight, strategic planning and solid funding that makes big projects possible.

A more likely outcome: California can’t finish building the future it promises, so Merced must keep taking what it can get.

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