The Insulting Fallacy of HSR Critics on the Central Valley
Posted by Roobs on July 10, 2012
During much of the debate leading up to and even during last week’s vote to fund HSR, many legislators and critics of HSR either implicitly or outright insult the Central Valley as a poor place to begin construction of the nation’s most ambitious infrastructure project. After the years of listening and responding to HSR critics’ arguments, I really am simply and unquestionably irritated and downright tired their statements on the Central Valley. I have to force myself at times not to just go off on many of these individuals who fancy themselves experts on planning issues – many the most outspoken are those who have no background in the subject at all. But specifically regarding the Central Valley, I think they just need to stop. Just stop talking. As native son of California’s (and arguably the country’s) most productive agricultural region, catchphrases like “train to nowhere”, the Norcal-Socal centric statements that “no one will ride it between Madera and Bakersfield”, and that it should go along Interstate 5 as opposed to State Route 99, are just downright offensive to all residents of the Central Valley. There are many reasons why the Central Valley is an excellent place to begin construction. Here are just a few.
There are nearly 4 million residents combined in the eight counties that comprise San Joaquin Valley, making the region larger in population than 24 states and the District of Columbia. Bakersfield has a population (347,000) a little larger than Anaheim (336,000). Visalia has a population (124,000) larger than Burbank (103,000) and a little less than Pasadena (137,000). Fresno has a population (495,000) larger than Oakland (391,000), Sacramento (466,000), and is still larger than the combined populations of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena (432,000) (population estimates from 2010 Census). Point being, there’s a lot of people here and they are along the current HSR route along the SR-99 freeway and not on the western edge along I-5.
Some people ask what problem HSR solves for traffic between San Francisco and Los Angeles. With exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving, I-5 is a relatively easy, straight shot between the two urban centers. So what does it really solve? Again, this is such a Socal-Norcal centric attitude to have. I-5 is not the highway critics, or supporters for that matter, should be focusing on. State Route 99 is. The reason is that SR-99 is where all the people are. It’s also where all the traffic is. Interstate 5 sees average daily traffic (ADT) hovering between 30,000 and 60,000. Only in the northern part of the Valley, in Stanislaus County, do you begin to see ADT around 100,000. But this is largely due to commuter traffic of people commuting between their homes in the Central Valley and their jobs in the Bay Area – the exact type of trip HSR will serve. By comparison, SR-99 sees ADTs north of 60,000 in most areas and many more areas where this number approaches 100,000. Traffic is also increasing at a faster pace on SR-99 than on I-5. By all logical accounts, an efficient means of moving people is much-needed to deal with increasing traffic volumes in this part of California as much as it would be needed in Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area. The arguments against the SR-99 route and those who say its “poorly planned” again reduce the Central Valley and all who live there as unimportant and unworthy. The Central Valley is chronically underserved by all forms transportation options and needs HSR as an additional option.
Highways are the only real means of traveling within and leaving the Valley. There are only two major airports in the region: Fresno-Yosemite International and Bakersfield’s Meadows Airport. I use the term “major” loosely. Central Valley airports infamously lack direct flights to destinations outside the Western US. Airports like Fresno International offer flights only as far East as Salt Lake City. With the exception of a limited service to Guadalajara, Mexico and Honolulu, the vast majority of air travel out of Fresno is to larger airports like Los Angeles and San Francisco where passengers then have to transfer to flights to farther destinations. As a result, most people (including myself when I was younger and taking family or school trips) would simply drive to either San Francisco or Los Angeles and board the flight there, which often proved cheaper than paying for the ticket out of Fresno or Bakersfield. And these airports can’t keep expanding to meet increasing demand – both in and out of their regions – for flying. SFO is locked into its space by the Bay and residential development. LAX is capped at traffic volume and has unsuccessfuly tried to expand its facilities for decades due to heavy community opposition (its surrounded as well). Burbank Airport is simply too small, surrounded by communities, and even has a nighttime curfew on flights. Options are very limited for Central Valley travelers, forcing them to take to the congested highways to travel to already constrained airports.
The Central Valley also has some of the state’s highest unemployment rates. Workers in these counties need access to the job rich regions of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Proposing HSR along I-5 again continues the isolation of the Central Valley and the arrogant presumption by Norcal and Socal leaders that this status quo is acceptable. High-speed rail will, again, offer a connection to workers who can now access the job centers of the state’s two maga-regions, but also offer an opportunity for firms in these areas to access an entirely new pool of skilled laborers. Businesses in the Central Valley would also benefit. Some of the nation’s leading agricultural businesses will appreciate high-speed rail when it comes to international trade. Company representatives can use HSR to travel to the aforementioned airports (much faster and more cheaply due to increasing gas prices) to fly to other countries selling our state’s coveted crops, bringing increasing demand and more jobs to the region.
Overall, those who would call HSR beginning in the Central Valley as foolhardy or a “train to nowhere” are either incredibly bias or just plain ignorant to what the Central Valley is, what it represents to the rest of the state, on transportation planning, or all of the above. It’s time everyone stop focusing on what HSR means only to Los Angeles or San Francisco (which I am not denying benefits would be substantial). The Central Valley is not “nowhere”. It is a leader in its own sectors, just as the Bay Area is with technology and Los Angeles is with film. It deserves and is in need of the substantial investment and benefits it will receive from high-speed rail.
Roobs grew up in the Central Valley, spending 18 years of his life in the City of Visalia. He received his Bachelors degree in Legal Studies & Sociology from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. Roobs currently works as a urban planner in the Los Angeles area.