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The plan to build a high-speed rail system took a weird detour in February when the California High Speed Rail Authority suddenly decided to run its first phase between Kern County and San Jose.
We learned more about the plans during a hearing March 28.The revised plan would lay the first 250 miles of track between San Jose and the Bakersfield area and now aims to offer service on the line in less than a decade.
But here’s the shocker for our region: It turns out the changed plans call for cutting out Merced until at least 2029. That’s a big change from the original plan that called for the first phase to run between southern California and Merced.
The announcement took a lot of people by surprise, including Assemblyman Adam Gray who represents Merced.
“Not only is the Authority breaking its promise to the people of the Northern San Joaquin Valley by eliminating Merced from the initial segment, but the new proposal doesn’t connect the bedroom communities that need the train to the Bay Area, ” said Gray.
Gray’s right. Bypassing Merced makes no sense. People in the southern San Joaquin Valley don’t work in the Bay Area. However, tens of thousands of people in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties travel north and then west over the Altamont to work every day.
“We do not need to build 90 miles of track south of Fresno while failing to reach Bakersfield. Virtually no one will commute from Shafter to San Jose for work,” Gray said. “That money should be spent connecting the communities of Merced, Modesto, and Stockton where thousands of people make this commute every day.”
When we talked with Jeffrey Michael of the University of the Pacific’s Business and Policy Research Center about high-speed rail a year and a half ago, he said Merced stood to benefit from the plan, especially if proposals to connect all of California’s train system came to fruition. Merced would become a hub connecting the northern Valley, the Bay Area and Southern California.
The Authority said it changed course to keep costs down, in large part because the southern segment will involve expensive tunneling costs through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains. It’s the phase everyone knew would be the toughest. What if they can’t do it?
“That’s the train to nowhere scenario,” Michael said back in November 2014. “That would be ridiculed.”
So, now the authority is building another kind of train to nowhere in an effort to keep momentum for a project that’s costing way more than promised.
And what about Merced? The community had just started planning a new transit center in preparation for what appeared to be its role as a regional transportation hub.
“We owe you and your constituents an apology,” High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard said to Gray during the March hearing.
God bless America,
Sharon Alley Calone