In the two decades since Californians first started debating a high-speed rail system along the state's long spine, one stubborn but ever-growing camp of voters has always considered the undertaking too pie-in-the-sky, too remotely distant and, especially, too expensive to be anything more than fiction.

Well, the pie has landed.

Although work has been underway north of Fresno since 2015, the reality of high-speed rail has been clearly evident only over the past several weeks at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Progress is plainly visible along State Route 43 about halfway between Wasco and Shafter. Two miles north of Merced Avenue, 59 of them of varying heights (between 32 and 35 feet) and stages of completion, point the way to the segment's eventual terminus at F Street and Golden State Avenue in Bakersfield, just 22 miles south.

Subcontractors will eventually build a viaduct over pairs of massive, parallel pillars — the elevated rail bed for a train that, at points along the route, will hit 220 mph.

This is the southernmost section of the 119-mile initial phase of California high-speed rail, a segment that now has more than 20 active job sites employing 3,000 workers, including four sites in Kern County, between Avenue 19 in Madera County and Merced Avenue in Kern County. Almost 400 of those workers live right here.

When it opens for business in 2028, the Central Valley segment line will move passengers from Bakersfield to Fresno in a little over 45 minutes and from Bakersfield to Merced in an hour and a half.

That means Bakersfield folks can take in a show at Fresno's William Saroyan Theater and return home in time for Jimmy Kimmel. That means Fresnans intrigued by the prospect of spending a Saturday night, say, at a Bakersfield honky-tonk, can do the same. But the phase-one rail line won't be particularly useful to those whose plans involve Fisherman's Wharf or Disneyland — or, more to the point of it all, a business pitch in Sacramento. Hence the popular pejorative, "Train to nowhere."

Meaningful connectivity will come later — much later — and then only if the Bakersfield-to-Merced line helps Gov. Gavin Newsom achieve a key political goal: The Central Valley portion of the project is the "prove-it" segment of high-speed rail, running across generally straight, flat, inexpensive, politically less complicated land. Newsom can herald its completion as his first high-speed triumph.

He still has some folks to win over.

Leaders from both the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin want to know why Sacramento is pouring $20.5 billion into a train from one valley town to another when it's those gridlocked major cities to the north and south that have the real need for transportation relief.

Many in the conservative Central Valley, particularly Kern and Kings counties, have criticized the project for entirely different reasons. They resent the huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars, the wildly escalating costs, the relentless property acquisition, the irony of Highway 99's degraded condition and, perhaps most of all, the general foisting of the state's will upon the provinces.

Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, the lone Democrat on the board, says the California High-Speed Rail Authority has come a long way toward easing some of those perceptions in the past few months. She said she and fellow Supervisor David Couch met recently with the rail authority's chief executive, Brian P. Kelly, and she came away encouraged.

"I'm blown away by how far we've come," she said Saturday. "It was so fiercely hated. A big part of it was the way they did it. They said, 'We're taking your land whether you like it or not.' I was frankly ashamed to be a Democrat. But I have never been anything other than confident that high-speed rail represents the kind of modern mechanization that closes the skills gap that our people have here in this part of the valley. We're in trouble because our people cannot compete. This can change all that, and I am so glad we have this new director in place, who gets all that."

Newsom, in his first State of the State address last February, made that very sales pitch. Even as he conceded that funding and political will have largely evaporated for high-speed rail, he left the door ajar by keeping the Bakersfield-to-Merced phase alive.

“High-speed rail is much more than a train project," Newsom said at the time. "It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the valley. We can align our economic and workforce development strategies, anchored by high-speed rail, and pair them with tools like opportunity zones, to form the backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley economy."

Bakersfield Assistant City Manager Jacqui Kitchen said that, despite now-settled litigation with the rail authority over the location of the terminal, that's exactly the hope down at City Hall.

"If high-speed rail comes to fruition, it would be a great benefit to the region," she said. "It would bring people down here to Bakersfield, it would create business opportunities, and it would open another line of communication that we really need. That's looking at it from a totally nonpartisan position."

Of course, it's been difficult to separate the economic and political aspects, especially in Bakersfield, where every Republican politician — which is to say almost every politician, period — has held up the project as an example of the majority party's wastefulness and deception. The project, ticketed in 2008 at $33 billion, is now expected to come in at as much as $98 billion.

Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner is among those unimpressed. "As it stands they still don't have a funding plan to come into Bakersfield in a way that makes sense," he said. "They have continued building toward something so they can say, 'Well, now we need to finish.' We have so many other needs. We need to finish Highway 46 (widening), build truck-climbing lanes through the (Tehachapi Mountains) because of all this increased truck traffic, and we also need an effective statewide water plan. This is a misguided project and has been since the beginning."

Mark Salvaggio, who served on the Bakersfield City Council from 1985 to 2004, was there for the city's initial vote on high-speed rail, a 1999 general resolution of support. He hasn't liked much of what he has seen since.

"What does this Bakersfield-to-Merced segment give us? Not much. ... But I would say they're going to finish it, just to show a victory and salvage a project that has lost favor with the public,” he said. "They're politicians — it's in their nature, in their blood, to make lemonade out of lemons."

Indeed, if high-speed rail halves the travel time between California's fifth- (Fresno) and ninth- (Bakersfield) largest cities from two hours to less than one, it might be difficult for the Legislature to dismiss. Whether anyone debating the project today is sufficiently ambulatory to board an L.A.-to-San Francisco train in 2033, when the final golden spike is supposed to be hammered home, is another matter.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(23) comments

mrdwm1

There are many legitimate reasons to build high speed commuter rail systems from central L.A. and central S.F. to outlying areas, not the least of which is more affordable housing for the millions who work there. But calling this a "statewide" system is simply a scam used to justify sticking folks in rural areas with part of the bill. All this to be done while the proponents of this scam are doing whatever they can to destroy the economy of the rural areas: the fake delta fish scam that has crippled Ag: the fake CARB rules that have driven trucking firms over the state line; now the fake fracking scam to drive out Oil. These folks obviously miss the Obama days when sitting around & waiting for a check was acceptable adult behavior.

She Dee

@mrdwm1- I suspect the only fake here is you & your ridiculous rants against things of vital importance to preserving Native Lands & Animal Species that are supported by those "little things" like the delta smelt. You & others like you need to do some research into the WHY's of the reasons behind the things you are calling FAKE!

REMUDA

'Electric' High-Speed Rail . . . ? Where's the power gonna come from?

Windmills . . . ? Solar panels . . . ? Hydro . . . ? (oops, no water, just drought)

Coal-fired, diesel-fired . . . pony carousel . . . power plants . . . ?

lyntwo

And Lo, the state that masterminded and caused to be funded, and to be built, the transcontinental railroad. The railroad that bound the nation together with bands of steel. What happened?

Nevermind

No stopping it now

She Dee

If I am fortunate enough to be alive in 2028, I'll get to ride that train to nowhere. I always hoped it would be competed & would run the entire length of the state. This "people mover" / "bullet train" was being discussed when I was a teenager in the late 1960's. I'll believe it when I see it.

7nickfish

If we had spent this wasted money on water solutions we would have really done something. That is not what the democrats want-they just want your money and if it is wasted that is the price of progress. Water solutions could have been a reality but we now have highest water costs because we never solve things.

Boogerface Nutter

The current AMTRAK route up the valley is one of the few that actually makes money. It will be interesting to see prices for this boondoggle and if it can be run anywhere near a break-even cost.

Fingers crossed. Let's see how it works when they start building into the San Francisco area. If it can avoid that traffic nightmare, it might have been worthwhile.

GaryJohns

Put your homeless buddies on it, Bobby....at 200 MPH....

Veritas

As Benjamin Franklin once said, 'Don't throw stones at your neighbors', if your own windows are glass.'

StevieB

California High-Speed Rail is about economic development in the cities with stops along the route and not local road vehicle congestion relief. Connecting Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced quickly and easily to Silicon Valley and eventually Southern California brings business opportunities. The high speed train will also connect to airports with flights to Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and countries in Europe and Asia. How convenient now is the flight from Bakersfield to Chicago? Connectivity brings business opportunities not available today.

rtguy53

[thumbup]

Boogerface Nutter

The dream was for a 2'40" run from LA to San francisco. I doubt, with the federally mandated speeds from Mojave to Bakersfield over the Tehachapis, if it will be less than a 5 hour trip and that's if the routes into Los Angeles and into San Francisco EVER get built.

What a run from Bako to Merced will prove is that a moderately high-speed rail route can be built. Running diesel-powered trains is counter-intuitive.

I, a retired locomotive engineer, have laughed at this plan, over the proposed route, since it first came up. As it has gotten incredibly expensive, it has been even more unlikely.

Someday, perhaps they'll be taking up the rail and making it a toll highway with 85mph speeds. A symbol of an idea gone completely wrong.

Stephen

History is well populated with naysayers to every advance in technology including the development of steam powered rail travel ("Not Scriptural," "If you go that fast you'll get a nose bleed."), automobiles (Scares horses), powered flight (If God intended men to fly He'd given us wings), and so on.

Now we have a long overdue "next step" in transportation in California and a population of naysayers, among them Republicans who have been throwing sand in the gears of the program as the throw sand into everything else they don't like then point to their damage to say, "See, it costs to much" or "See, it doesn't work."

Oh! Here's an idea: Let's bill the Republican Re-Elect Donald Trump for President 2020 Committee for the difference between the early projected costs and today's estimates. After all they are awash in money as they fight to stop social changes that involve recognizing rights of those not white, male, and not college educated; (people with educations are "elitists" after all) progress in general and denial of scientifically based challenges to "return" us to a romanticized vision of the past.

byebyeCA

Oh! Here's an idea: The democrats are as guilty of throwing sand in the gears of programs as the Republicans, neither are worth a ........

Inconvenient Truth

Stephen,

You are conflating technology with expediency.

Bullet trains are a very old technology; the Japanese have been building them for 55 years.

Most of us who oppose the building of the California High Speed Rail Line do so on the grounds that it is a very expensive solution in search of a problem.

If you want to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you can currently do so in less than 2 hours for around $100 round trip: via jet aircraft (a 60 year old technology).

Given the current cost estimates, High Speed Rail makes no economic sense for California. Absent heavy government subsidies, tickets will be prohibitively expensive.

If you don’t like air travel due to TSA checkpoints, consider that high speed rail will have to have comparable security - it will be a veritable terrorist magnet along its entire length.

We don’t oppose high speed rail because it CAN’T be built; only because it SHOULDN’T be built; it makes no economic sense.

Nevermind

That's a valid point, Californians like the Independence of autos. However, economics are also connected to efficiency. Less autos and planes, less oil consumption and environmental damage. We can point to the success of trains in other nations, but they pay twice as much for gas. Im undecided, but eventually transportation has to become more efficient in a State as big as many nations.

yorkies2014

local Republican partisans have driven the costs way up fighting a change that could have benefited us as all ….muchas gracias to Leticia for helping them mend their rigid ways…. Next project….bake the board some brownies……and god bless America

byebyeCA

Thank you dorkies2014

Lilyrose

No thank you for going bye bye CA.

Don't write dorkies2014. Not cool.

Gene Pool Chlorinator

You seriously are blaming local republicans for the cost overruns on this idiotic plan?

Not sure what world you are living in...

When Elon Musk was here a few years ago, he maligned the project as being at least three generations of bullet train behind- and likely more if it is ever completed. This is what you get for your taxpayer dollars in California...

Inconvenient Truth

Seriously, Bob?

It took America only 6 years to build over 1,900 miles of track to complete the Transcontinental Railroad,... 150 YEARS AGO!

Today, it takes Californians 28 years to build a railroad less than 1/10th that length, and that’s supposed to feel like an accomplishment?

FoxtailRanger

Never seen a 220 mph train wreck...might be entertaining.

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