A worker on the partially constructed Cedar Viaduct in Fresno in March. The 3,700-foot-long structure, with four massive arches, is part of California's high-speed rail project. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)
California’s high-speed rail system is someday (or so we’re told) supposed to whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under three hours, traversing the state at speeds of over 200 miles per hour.
In 2008, California voters approved nearly $10 billion in bonds to begin construction of the state’s bullet train system, the first project of its kind in the country.
At the project’s official groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno in 2015, state officials, like then-Gov. Jerry Brown, promised that high-speed rail would not only connect LA and the Bay Area, via the Central Valley, but also eventually reach stations in Anaheim, San Diego and Sacramento.
Fast-forward to today, and the project is tens of billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, with critics lambasting it as a major boondoggle that should be scrapped.
If ever completed, the bullet train project — now projected to cost $105 billion, of which just over $10 billion has been spent so far — would be the single largest infrastructure investment in state history. It's also proven incredibly contentious among state leaders, with Assembly Democrats still refusing to give Gov. Gavin Newsom a $4.2 billion appropriation for the project that he requested more than a year ago.
And for many Californians, the project is still very much an abstraction because they don’t live in places where they can see it being built.
But that’s not the case in the Central Valley, where construction has been underway for years now and where the first trains are slated to eventually start running. The High-Speed Rail Authority, which oversees the project, says it hopes to have the first segment of the line, between Bakersfield and Merced, ready for passenger service by 2030 — although officials also acknowledge further delays are possible.
That’s dramatically scaled down from the original plan, which projected that the entire 520-mile section between LA and San Francisco would be completed by 2029.
On the edge of south Fresno, next to Highway 99, lies the Cedar Viaduct, a 3,700-foot-long structure with four massive arches and a concrete bed wide enough to fit future tracks.
This viaduct, which is already a kind of local landmark, is just one of more than 30 active high-speed rail project construction sites up and down the Central Valley.
“On any typical day, on average, we have about 1,100 dispatched workers on various sites,” said Toni Tinoco, deputy director of the High-Speed Rail Authority. “That's everything between Madera County, all the way to the city of Wasco. That's 119 miles to cover. And we have a lot of men and women in different trades going to these sites, constructing these structures every day."
Since breaking ground seven years ago, the project has created over 7,000 jobs and helped support nearly 700 small businesses across the state, she says, supplying everything from construction parts to office supplies.
Those economic benefits have been particularly important to Central Valley communities, she argues.
“Historically, we've had very, very high unemployment rates here,” she said. “High-speed rail has been one of the drivers of getting that number down. Being able to employ people. I mean, our workers and our contractors are here, they're living here, they're investing, they're eating, they're purchasing different products outside of construction, so that’s huge."
Many of the project’s components, like girders and enormous precast concrete slabs, are manufactured at a 40-acre, open-air yard surrounded by farm fields outside the community of Hanford, about 30 miles south of Fresno. The finished products are then loaded aboard flatbed trucks and transported to building sites across the Valley.
Doing the work here, as opposed to factories in LA or the Bay Area, cuts down on the transport costs, explains Craig Watt, a project supervisor who works for the private contractor Dragados-Flatiron Joint Venture.
“And a lot of the local suppliers for precast components in the state of California don't have the capacity to keep up with our demand,” he said.
Ironworker Desrae Ruiz has been working at this site, alongside her husband, for several years, and says she feels like they’re both part of something historic.
“I would love to see the finished product of it and be able to say, ‘I helped build that train with my husband,’” Ruiz said. “Like, that's something that you can hold on to and nobody can take it from me, so it feels good.”
“I started it as a job, and it's become my career,” she added. “I'm really wanting to stick to it full force and go as far as I can.”
What’s also good, says Desrae’s husband Keith Villagrana, is the years of steady work and generous pay that high-speed rail creates for residents here in the construction trades.
“I've actually made more money than I've ever made in the 10 years I've been in my trade,” Villagrana said. “This working for High-Speed Rail Authority has made a big difference in our lives, a very big difference.”
But not far from the project’s construction sites, it’s easy to find Central Valley residents who say they don’t see the benefits of the massive project.
“When I hear the words ‘high-speed rail,’ I think it's just a lot of waste of money,” said Michael Lopez, who owns Green and Clean, a small construction and landscaping business in the town of Selma, southeast of Fresno.
Lopez says he’s pretty well-connected to other small businesses in the area, and no one ever mentions high-speed rail being an economic game-changer for the Valley and its people.
“I don’t know who has these jobs,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who works for the high-speed rail personally. I got this contract for the high-speed rail and I’m making all this money?”
Lopez added, “It’s just going to be a money pit, continually consuming California’s taxpayers' money for something that is not very necessary.”
At a Panera restaurant in north Fresno, about a dozen regulars gather early in the mornings to talk about the hot-button issues of the day, including the rail project.
Asked how often the project comes up in conversation, Fresno resident Jerry Kartunian laughed: “Oh, every other day,” he said.
“It’s a rail that goes nowhere,” Kartunian added. “It's going from Bakersfield to Merced. It's supposed to go from LA to San Francisco at, what, $300 billion cost at the end of 35 years? We’ll be all dead and gone by the time that thing is up and running.”
But Tinoco, of the High-Speed Rail Authority, continues to fiercely defend the project, even as its price tag keeps rising. Each day of construction, she says, brings it closer to reality, despite the many naysayers.
The project got a financial shot in the arm last year when the Biden administration restored nearly a billion dollars in federal funding that had been cut by the Trump administration.
And late last month, its board approved a 90-mile extension between Merced and San José. It’s the first time that the route has been officially extended from the Central Valley toward a coastal city.
”You're never going to get all of the support that you hope that you can get,” she said. “But the fact is that California voted on high-speed rail to get this started, and we're trying to deliver what Californians voted for.”