Why both sides might ultimately be right about HSR

In the end, California prognosticators predicting high-speed glory and doomsday gloom could both be right.


The Fresno City Council on Sept. 15 approved a resolution supporting the bullet-train project.


The vote was 4-2. Council President Paul Caprioglio and Council Members Oliver Baines, Sal Quintero and Esmeralda Soria voted yes. Council Members Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier voted no. Council Member Lee Brand was absent.

Things unfolded exactly as Brandau had predicted to me several days earlier.

We already tackled the backstory. To recap, a majority at City Hall has trumpeted its support for high-speed rail for years. For that reason, the Sept. 15 resolution might seem redundant.

But officials at the high-speed rail authority have yet to pick a spot for the train’s heavy maintenance yard. Fresno wants it. So do places like Madera and Bakersfield.

The behind-the-scenes politicking no doubt is brutal. The Sept. 15 resolution, proposed by Baines, is merely another piece of Fresno’s game plan to win the jobs-rich maintenance yard.

“Whereas,” of course, is the pivotal word in any resolution. It signals each assertion by the author. Here are five important signals in Baines’ resolution:

“Whereas, the California high-speed rail system is intended to alleviate crippling congestion on California’s roads and airports, some of the most crowded in the nation, and

“Whereas, high-speed rail is intended to improve air quality by reducing harmful greenhouse gas and other emissions; and

“Whereas, high-speed rail will connect Fresno to other regions of the state more efficiently, reducing travel times and making the San Joaquin Valley more accessible, and

“Whereas, construction of high-speed rail has already employed hundreds of Fresnans and brought work to several area small businesses; and

“Whereas, this economic stimulus will continue to be felt as Fresno will be more closely tied to the other major economic centers of the state – the Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin; and….”

The proposed resolution got more than 90 minutes of public comment and council debate. It’s enough here to let Baines and Olivier have their say.

“I could say a lot on this topic, but I think the resolution speaks for itself,” Baines said. “Quite honestly, for some reason, this topic is extremely controversial in Fresno. And while I can certainly understand why there are potential concerns about the project, I think right now we’re at a situation where we in Fresno need to be supportive of what’s happening in our city.

“High-speed rail is occurring, high-speed rail is happening, it is not going anywhere. And we as policy-makers, in my opinion, need to stand up for that. We need to stand up for what’s happening in our city and be supportive and hope for its success. Because God help us in Fresno if it’s not successful and our city is halfway torn up without a functioning system. And while I don’t believe that will happen, I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that it is successful.

“Furthermore, the benefits of high-speed rail for us here in Fresno – here in the Central Valley but particularly in Fresno – are innumerable. We can see the benefits that are occurring right now with all the people working, with all the infrastructure and repairs that we have (thanks to) high-speed rail. High-speed rail is critical to our city.”

Baines noted that some local political jurisdictions are changing their tune and becoming anti-bullet train. He said the resolution is a golden opportunity for Fresno to send a far different message to project authorities.

“I think we need to send that message loud and clear to the people of this state, to the governor and to the high-speed rail authority, that we here in Fresno do want high-speed rail to succeed because it’s in the best interests of our residents. And we as policy-makers are taking a very strong, bold position on that,” Baines said.

With that, Baines moved to approve the resolution. Caprioglio gave the second.

Olivier began by noting that Assembly Member (and former Fresno mayor) Jim Patterson authored a bill mandating more thorough independent oversight of high-speed rail activities. Olivier said the bill sailed through all layers of the legislature and now sits on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature.

Patterson is a Republican in a Democrat-heavy legislature. Olivier’s point: High-speed rail’s much-publicized woes are scaring the very Democrats one would expect to be the project’s heartiest supporters.

Olivier then talked about what he didn’t hear from the audience.

“We heard from a number of speakers, and the speakers were very articulate,” Olivier said. “The speakers made a number of great points…. (But) none of the speakers today talked about reducing greenhouse gases, none of the speakers today talked about climate change, none of the speakers today talked about the importance of moving people. I didn’t hear anyone talk about getting cars off the road – because that’s what they’re talking about in LA and San Francisco.

“But in the bubble that is the Central Valley in which we live, high-speed rail has become a make-work project. That’s what it is. That’s what the speakers spoke about. That’s what it is for us in the Central Valley – it is a make-work project.

“I don’t oppose people working. I don’t oppose people from our building trades working. There’s dignity in all work, and definitely with the high unemployment that we have in the Valley I can see why it would be so important for folks to look for job-generators and ways to create jobs. In the case of high-speed rail, though, unfortunately that is what it is.

“If you look at the political landscape, though, one of the people who could be the next governor of the state of California, Gavin Newsom, who is a very progressive Democrat, he opposes the project. There are numbers of very progressive members in the California State Assembly and in the California Senate who oppose the project. Opposition to this project is moving out of conservative circles and into the more progressive circles as more and more people wake up to the disaster that this project has become….

“Folks, in private industry this business would have already gone belly-up. It’s a catastrophe. And the only reason why it continues is because so far it has received lots of taxpayer money – way over and above what the voters of our state originally approved. And it seems to be surviving in the hopes that it will continue to get taxpayer money from Washington, D.C. But if we look at the political landscape, if Newsom is elected governor and Trump is elected president, this project is not going to get money from Sacramento and it’s not going to get money from Washington, D.C.”

Olivier concluded with one final reason for his opposition to the resolution and the project it supports.

High-speed rail service, Oliver said, “is going to be very expensive and the constituents I represent won’t be able to afford it.”

I watched the debate via the video posted on the City Clerk’s website. I thought: What if both Baines and Olivier are right?

What if every phase of the high-speed rail project is built exactly as currently planned? And what if that decades-long effort costs more taxpayer money than anyone ever dreamed of spending, and generates political strife of unparalleled ferocity?

There’s ample reason to think that’s where we’re headed.

In that case, I must respectfully disagree with Olivier on his concluding statement. If California’s bullet train gets done but causes civil war, then the political pressure will be overwhelming to make ridership an egalitarian entitlement. The poorest person will have exactly the same opportunity to ride the bullet train as the richest person.

Then, high-speed rail’s operations budget will make the construction budget look like small potatoes.

1 comment
  1. I laughed when I read Clint’s comment about make work projects. The construction and development industries are essentially make-work. If stuff isn’t being built they’re not making money, which is all that matters to them.

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