I've spent two very interesting days here in Fresno organizing for another issue, but have had some time to talk to people about high speed rail (because really, what sort of HSR activist would I be if I didn't?!). I've found that the project actually has a fairly high profile here - most of the diverse group of people I've talked to actually know about it and support it. As there are at least 2.5 million people living along the HSR route between Merced and Bakersfield, their backing of the system is crucial - lest we forget, Merced, Fresno, and Kern Counties ALL voted FOR Prop 1A back in November.
What's behind the support? In my conversations there are some common reasons given:
- Desire to connect to the rest of the state. Whether they love living in the Valley or not, most people here want to be able to get to and from the bigger parts of the state quickly. They may have family or friends going to school in LA, or want to see a show in SF. Typically they're going to drive, which is usually at least 3 hours in each direction. A rapid train will help make that easy.
- Desire to cut pollution. Even though it's an early spring day, the air quality here in Fresno hasn't been so great this weekend. It reminds me of the 1980s in Southern California, where smog was commonplace. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the entire nation. Asthma and other respiratory diseases are extremely common, and given the frequent traffic on Highway 99 it's no surprise. People here WANT a method of travel that will not make their health problems worse.
- Desire to stop sprawl. To hear some people tell it Valley residents love sprawl. That's always been a debatable point; in reality it's the Valley's political leaders who have promoted it, along with the inexorable logic of having built an entire national, even global economy on sprawl. With the housing bubble collapse, which has hit the Valley harder than probably any other place on the globe, there is a clearer desire for preserving farmland, stopping sprawl, and channeling growth inward. The people I talked to get this.
- They're sick of being ignored. With at least 2.5 million people along the initial HSR route, and with over 5 million in the Valley as a whole (including Sacramento), Valley residents have watched state funds and projects go to the "cities" - SF Bay Area, Southern California, while Highway 99 has been ignored. And that enables opponents of mass transit, for example, to demagogue on the issue - "don't vote for this project, it's just going to help those Bay Area liberals who don't care about you." Which in turn emboldens those voices here that tell Valley voters "the cities will just take your tax money and give nothing in return" (if the Valley elected more Dems the 2/3 rule would no longer be an issue). San Joaquin Valley residents feel, quite reasonably in my view, that they deserve to be part of this system.
And it makes practical sense in this case to include them. The flattest route between SF and LA involves the Central Valley. The 2.5 million people who live along the San Joaquin Valley portion of the LA-SF route are an important part of the potential ridership base of a financially viable HSR system. And it will play an essential role in achieving the kind of long-term shift in land use policy in California, a shift that cannot succeed unless the Valley is included. Otherwise the Valley plays the role of a kind of China, undercutting the efforts at higher labor and environmental standards elsewhere in the state.
I know that there have been some comments suggesting that we just bypass the Highway 99 corridor when building the LA-SF route, that the inclusion of Fresno and Bakersfield was just a political ploy, that it's just not necessary to build HSR in these places. I could not disagree more strongly. California High Speed Rail will not be successful unless it includes the Valley.