High-speed rail brings hope and fear to the Central Valley

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California’s high-speed rail network promises to bridge communities cut off by California’s difficult geography. But despite criticism and widespread negative press, parts of the route are being built in Fresno — and are opening up new opportunities in the Central Valley.

Driving through the Tehachapi Mountains on the way from Los Angeles to the Central Valley. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Driving from Los Angeles to the Central Valley is a good reminder of how difficult it is to travel across California. Mountains, canyons, deserts and other geographical features divide regions of the state. The Tehachapi Mountains in southern Kern County and northwestern Los Angeles County are “effectively a wall that divides the state and has divided the state throughout its whole history,” said Joe Mathews, Connecting California columnist with Zocalo Public Square.

Mathews accompanied DnA on a recent trip to the Central Valley to catch up on the progress of California’s largest infrastructure project: a high-speed rail system that promises to connect San Francisco, the Central Valley and LA, making it easier to travel between communities cut off by California’s difficult geography. But while offering a bridge across the state, the project is also cutting through agricultural land and communities, creating a wall that could devastate local farmers and businesses.

Many in the agriculture industry are part of an effort to stop construction of the rail line. If the farmers had their way, money being spent on fast trains would go to water instead. Congressman Devin Nunes of the Central Valley — a vocal Trump supporter — has said bonds for high-speed rail system should move to water infrastructure.

Construction of the pergola that spans the Union Pacific tracks south of Fresno. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Acquisition of land for the 119-mile stretch of track between Merced and north of Bakersfield has proven to be such an obstacle to progress that costs have skyrocketed and voters have fallen out of love with the project, to the point that the next governor might pull his support.

But while the fights continue, building has continued to move ahead and a surprising amount of the route in the Central Valley is underway.

There are 17 construction sites, according to Diana Gomez, Central Valley regional director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, including overpasses, underpasses, a trench, bridges and viaducts.

DnA visited construction sites north and south of Fresno, where the San Joaquin Viaduct will span both the river and the existing Union Pacific tracks, and the site of the new high-speed rail station in Fresno, which will link to other modes of transit. And we hear from supporters and opponents of the project about changes the train could bring to the Central Valley.

Diana Gomez, Central Valley regional director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, oversees rail construction from Merced to north of Bakersfield. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Diana Gomez is an electrical engineer who worked for Caltrans for two decades, helping to oversee the “Carmageddon” expansion of the 405. She’s a native of the Central Valley and looks forward to the changes that will come with high-speed rail.

“It’s really about connecting all of California together. It’s not about connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s really about connecting the Central Valley to the north and south, and really spreading out the economy of the state,” Gomez said.

Gomez is the Central Valley regional director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and oversees the initial phase of rail construction from Merced to north of Bakersfield. Much of her work now involves meeting with farmers and landowners to gain access to the right of way for the new track.

“I feel that we have made a very big effort to sit and talk to every single farmer to figure out how they operate, how we’re coming through their property, and mitigate whatever concerns they have. Whether it’s irrigation, whether it’s how they move around their farm their operations their wells their crops. And we’ve been very fair also in the market value. So we’re doing everything we can. When the farmer wants to sit and communicate with us, we’re able to do that,” she said.

Bob Brazil, a Hanford farmer, says he resents the advent of rail because it is chopping up his farmland “like a pizza.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Bob Brazil owns about 1,200 acres of farmland. He’s a fourth generation farmer, and says he planned to pass on this land to his son to continue farming. But, as he tells it, rail officials have plowed through his fields and uprooted his almond trees to make way for an overpass.

This train that’s supposed to create a bridge between different parts of California is creating a wall on his land. So instead of being able to drive a tractor in a straight line, he’ll have to keep turning, meaning extra time and costs.

“So I got to farm all around this now. It’s impossible. This whole ranch is ruined as far as I’m concerned. It’s like I’m farming a puzzle,” he said.

And he says that if the train ever arrives, it’ll bring tech workers from San Francisco who will change the area and make it even harder for him to keep farming.

“I’m going to try to get all I can out of [rail officials] because they destroyed my property, they devalued my property. This ranch was here for my kids so they can have something to do… and it kind of seems like that’s all changed. If the government can go to your ranch and tear it up… it just sucks. It’s very disappointing.”

Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of Fresno County Economic Development Corporation (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Connections, connections, connections. This is what you hear from people who believe in high speed rail.

“I’m absolutely, I’ll tell you right up front, a 100 percent supporter of the project because of the connectivity that’s going to happen between Fresno, the Central Valley, and San Francisco and Los Angeles,” said Lee Ann Eager, the president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “As far as business growth, that connectivity is going to change everything for us.”

Eager’s job is to help relocate businesses uprooted by rail constructions, while attracting new ones. She says of the 333 businesses disrupted by the alignment, about 89 percent were successfully relocated within Fresno County.

It’s also Eager’s job to keep Fresnans excited even as their city gets torn apart by construction. She’s been doing this since voters approved high speed rail a decade ago.

“It was right after Prop 1A passed in 2008 that I took over here. My first week on the job, someone said, ‘there’s this high speed rail thing, looks like it might be coming through the Valley. Why don’t you go to some of the meetings and see how that’s going to affect us here in Fresno?’ I think that was my first of 10,000 meetings on high speed rail that I’ve been to,” she said with a laugh.

Because California’s high-speed rail is first being built in Fresno, the city has “gotten the opportunities from the very beginning, as far as jobs. We’ve also been the guinea pig.”

As far as the narrative about high-speed rail that’s largely focused on budget overruns and construction delays, Eager says this is all par for the course when it comes to huge infrastructure projects.

“Whether it’s the interstate freeway or whether it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, all you have to do is go back and say, oh, okay, everyone said that’s never going to happen. Everyone said that’s never going to be built. So when we’re looking at high-speed rail, I don’t think it’s any different than what’s happened in the past,” she said.

“Yes it’s a little bit of an inconvenience today, but our kids and grand kids are the ones that are going to be able to benefit from this.”

Irma Olguin and Jake Soberal, co-founders and co-CEOs of Bitwise, a technology hub in Fresno. Photo by Ryan Christopher Jones. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

If you want to see the future of Fresno, visit the offices of Bitwise, a business technology incubator in the city’s downtown.

Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin are the co-founders and co-CEOs. They grew up on different sides of Fresno, both left for other cities, and returned to their hometown with plans to change it.

Working in tech in Fresno can be isolating, they admit.

“The phone lines aren’t very good. It is difficult sometimes to not be able to read body language and timing and rhythm and things in conversation,” Olguin said.

But face to face meetings with folks in the state’s tech hubs involves driving three and a half hours each way, or the hassle of taking a flight from the nearby airport.

“Certainly the need to connect to other parts of the state and country by way of intermodal transit is really a reason to be excited about what’s what’s coming with high-speed rail,” Soberal said.

The two say they are using the technology industry as a tool to fix their city.

“Fresno as a city has virtually every economic and social ill that you could hope for, which maybe can be defeating but also paints a picture of just immense opportunity,” Soberal said. We’ve got about a million people in the center of California that aren’t going anyplace, and it’s a place that we care deeply about.”

The company feels a particular responsibility to the agricultural community, which is being impacted by changes coming to the Central Valley.

“Fresno County has… among the most forgotten humans in our country. And they tend to be pushed to the edges of our county and completely out of our economy and that is maybe best embodied by the farm laborers’ son or daughter, and we’re seeing that debated at a national level today,” Soberal said.

“The truth of the matter is that that person isn’t going to be able to afford the high-speed rail. They’re not going to be able to afford a ticket to participate in whatever’s going on in Los Angeles or San Francisco. We still have a lot of work to do just to get them to the center of our city and connect them to any sort of opportunity.”

“I come from a farm labor family in a farm labor town,” Olguin added. “I did not set out with the dream to someday build the company that I would run that could change the face of the Central Valley. My vision for my life was to maybe become a manager at a local shop somewhere in the town in which I grew up and be able to pay all my bills in the same month. That was the traditional dream of the folks who grew up similar to the way that I did.”

“The technology industry is the hammer that we have in our hand at the moment. The high-speed rail may or may not play a part in that, but ultimately the goal is to give people who grew up the same way I did the opportunity to change their realities.”