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Limited High-Speed Train Plan Bewilders Some Californians

New Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to limit the high-speed train to a 165-mile rail line, to the praise of some and criticism of others. The original project, delayed and increasingly costly, would have gone much farther.

(TNS) — With snow falling on the distant Sierra foothills and a cold wind carrying the smell of cattle across the University of California’s newest campus, UC Merced student Imani Jones seemed like she couldn’t be any farther from home.

Originally from Los Angeles, Jones, 20, said she was glad to escape the “big city,” as she sat outside the school library, which is perched along an irrigation ditch. But she noted that the rural university didn’t offer much to do or see beyond her studies.

“The only exceptions are the Target and the Costco,” she said. “And the movie theater.”

This week, Jones and, for that matter, the city of Merced and the entire San Joaquin Valley may have lost what they thought would be a newfound connection to the rest of California. In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for focusing the state’s much-hyped high-speed-rail project to a train serving the Central Valley and putting on hold extensions to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Many praised the governor’s announcement as a way to possibly cut losses on a pricey venture that has blown past budgets and deadlines, and has increasingly frustrated the public. But others said the bigger disappointment is getting a half-baked project — a 165-mile rail line between Merced and Bakersfield, and no service beyond.

“I don’t even go to Bakersfield,” said Jones, who had looked forward to the train as a way to get home to Los Angeles.

Her friends and fellow students on campus echoed her sentiment. They said 220-mph rail service to one of four stops — Madera, Fresno, Hanford (Kings County) or Bakersfield — didn’t make sense. They’d just as soon drive between the cities on Highway 99 or take existing Amtrak trains.

“It would have been nice to have the option to go farther,” said Francesco Gnerre, 20, a computer science student from Mountain View.

Although many of the students would probably have graduated before high-speed service began to Los Angeles or the Bay Area, some said they’d like to stick around Merced and make a home of the sleepy, but pleasant community. They’re vested in its future.

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said his city is at a turning point. Any additional rail service, even if it’s limited to the valley, will help the area grow from a quiet town to a lively cultural and economic hub, he said.

About 6 miles from campus in downtown Merced, the old farming community, with a historic theater and the famed Tioga Hotel where President John F. Kennedy once stayed, boasts several blocks of restaurants and shops. While business is often slow, a new live-performance venue and boutique inn are in the works with the hope of drawing more traffic.

“For me, this isn’t the end of the story,” Murphy said.

The planned high-speed trains in Merced will tie into the proposed expansion of the Bay Area’s Altamont Corridor Express rail service, according to city officials. Once these projects are completed, valley residents will be able to go from one train system to the other, offering the option of rail travel from Bakersfield to San Jose.

The trip to the Bay Area from Merced will take a couple of hours, much longer than the 45 minutes or so that a high-speed train would have taken, officials say. But it serves as a viable alternative to driving.

Just 30 miles south of Merced, the high-speed rail is already beginning to take shape.

Railroad bridges stand above county roads. Viaducts for trains cross over rivers. Even a busy 2-mile stretch of Highway 99 has been relocated to accommodate the path of the new rail.

While construction crews have a long way to go before service is up and running, the project — and all the commotion — has become a fixture in the San Joaquin Valley since breaking ground four years ago.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent so far. But at the same time, the estimated cost of the project has more than doubled to $77 billion while the initial plan of starting some service by 2020 is out of the question.

Officials at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the state agency in charge of the enterprise, declined to answer questions for this story.

The cost of finishing the line through the San Joaquin Valley, and when it might get done, remain unclear.

Brian Esquivel, 57, who was eating lunch at Marie’s Mexican Kitchen in downtown Merced on Wednesday, said he’d like to see the whole thing just go away.

Like many, he’s been skeptical of high-speed rail since the idea seriously took off with voter-approved funding in 2008.

“It’s been a lot of money spent, and now it’s wasted,” Esquivel said, adding that the plan to limit service to the valley is even worse than pursuing the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

His buddy Albert Almarino, 74, speculates that getting trains up and running locally will be riddled with just as many problems as the statewide project.

“It’s probably not going to be complete for another 10 or 15 years, or never,” he said.

Cassandra Coria, 22, who was walking her dog outside the restaurant, said the rail plan always seemed a bit surreal.

“It was a little utopian, a fantasy almost,” she said.

But Coria is a supporter, and as a student at UC Merced, she had written a paper on the benefits of high-speed trains running to Los Angeles and San Francisco. For her, the perks included weekend getaways on the coast.

University administrators have long advocated for the statewide project. In a recent opinion piece in a valley newspaper, Chancellor Dorothy Leland said that UC Merced, known for its strong science and engineering programs, was poised to gain from “technology transfer” and private-sector partnerships with Silicon Valley.

She declined an interview on the subject this week.

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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