San Joaquin Valley Cannot Afford to Not Build HSR
This blog has repeatedly argued that because of a failed status quo – with unemployment in Fresno County of 15.8% – we cannot simply abandon efforts that would create jobs and reduce our costly dependence on oil because those efforts aren’t easy. Almost to a person, HSR critics and opponents all believe that the status quo is working just fine, that the country is not in crisis, and that suffering is either overstated or tolerable.
High speed rail has the potential to transform the San Joaquin Valley from a region dependent on agriculture alone to a diverse and prosperous place with a wide range of jobs, tied into the global economy by having a fast and affordable connection to the all-important coastal economic engines.
Others are beginning to make the same point. As Fresno Bee columnist Bill McEwen explains, the Valley has to be willing to take some risks if it is to have any hope of escaping what is an economic depression:
“I see a huge future for high-speed rail. It’s great that the first link that’s going to get built in California is between Fresno and Bakersfield,” says [Mary] O’Hara-Devereaux, keynote speaker at today’s Fresno County Economic Development Corp. annual report luncheon.
Why then is high-speed rail so divisive that polite folks don’t discuss it around the dinner table?
“There is always a lot of controversy around transportation shifts,” O’Hara-Devereaux says.
O’Hara-Devereaux, founder and chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Global Foresight, says that she’s aware of the Valley’s steep economic challenges. But she is of the opinion that the region can prosper by diversifying its economy, continuing to be a world leader in agriculture and forming partnerships with top academic institutions.
“The San Joaquin Valley has struggled and lagged behind other areas in California,” O’Hara-Devereaux says. “But I’m not pessimistic about the future. A lot of it depends on not getting lost in familiar territory and stuck in mindsets.
And that’s exactly where HSR opponents and critics are – lost in familiar territory and stuck in a 20th century mindset where people will only ever want to drive.
We’ve seen around the world that HSR provides a boon to mid-line cities who are suddenly able to attract talent and capital from the major metros that become just an hour’s train ride away. Fresno and Bakersfield are poised to become the next Ciudad Real or Zaragoza. The freeway turned San José from an orchard town to the center of a global industry. HSR can turn Fresno into an important part of the 21st century economy.
After all, HSR allows the global economy to tap into the resources the Valley currently has:
O’Hara-Devereaux’s crystal ball also includes this possibility: a shift in overseas manufacturing jobs to the low-cost Valley.
“There’s a play in strategically thinking about how you bring more manufacturing,”she says. “It has to be done in a comprehensive manner, so you’re also making the investments in education and training. Almost all manufacturing is going to be more high-tech, so you’re going to need more skills.”
The Valley is low-cost, but it’s also geographically isolated. In the ’00s boom that isolation was temporarily overcome when the Bay Area began spilling over into San Joaquin County, but the end of cheap gas stopped that and turned Stockton into one of the most depressed housing markets in the country. But that boom did prove the concept – if the Valley can be linked to the coast with the right kind of transportation, capital, jobs, and people will flock to the Valley.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone in the Valley would want to turn down that opportunity. Because HSR spurs growth within existing urban areas due to the desire to have proximity to a station, it won’t threaten most farmers. And because it will create construction jobs as well as bring jobs to the Valley and put current residents in the market for coastal jobs, it will be as beneficial to the local economy as were the canals and aqueducts of the New Deal era.
The opportunity and the rewards are too great to let a few kinks in the project hold the Valley back from what may be its best chance at escaping long-term economic malaise.