FRESNO, Calif. — The piling rig was in position, ready to drive a concrete pillar 40 feet into the ground. Just beyond the rig on this winter afternoon, trucks and cars continued streaming down State Road 198 in Hanford, separated from the construction site by white dividers.
Then, the pile-driving began. Foot by foot, the rig's hammer slammed the pillar into the ground with the rhythmic beat of a metronome. With every blow, the ground shook and exhaust spewed. The beam would be one more in a network of pillars pounded deep into the earth to create the foundation for a high-speed rail line that in a matter of years will glide along tracks above the state highway, launching a new era in California's Central Valley.
From earth-moving equipment to heavy trucks ferrying massive beams and bulldozers clearing piles of debris, construction related to California's high-speed rail project is evident across the San Joaquin Valley. Farther north, crews worked atop a viaduct that will carry the high-speed line above existing freight tracks that cut across the state north to south. And in Fresno's Chinatown, restaurant and retail owners eagerly served a steady influx of construction workers, engineers and electricians, part of a broader transformation of the city's downtown and economic prospects.
California's high-speed rail may still be a matter of carping debate in some political circles, but it's fast becoming a reality for residents of the Central Valley. This heavily farmed region — historically separated from Los Angeles, San Francisco and the California coast by both conservative politics and physical distance — is first in line to benefit from an infrastructure project being built with tens of billions of dollars in state and federal funding.
The 171-mile stretch of rail running between Merced and Bakersfield could be operational as early as 2030, with testing of the bullet trains slated to begin in 2028, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority. The project has created more than 12,000 construction jobs, with 70% of those workers coming from the Central Valley. Authority officials cited 25 active construction sites, with the Kings/Tulare station outside Hanford being the largest. The authority is closing in on finishing 22 miles of rail north of Shafter, set to be the first segment of the rail line completed.
In December, the Biden administration awarded the authority a $3.1 billion grant, the authority's biggest award to date. The funds will go toward purchase of six electric trains for testing and use, design and construction of the Fresno station and designs for the Merced and Bakersfield extensions.
Residents and local officials acknowledge there has long been dissent over the project. Some of the region's big farm interests have mounted fierce opposition, rallying conservative lawmakers to their cause. But the tenor of the conversation has changed as more jobs are created and structures go up.
When Interstate 5 was conceived in the mid-20th century as a major transportation corridor connecting California from north to south, the Central Valley's interests were not part of the equation. The route skirts the valley's rural western edge, and its major population centers — Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield — were left out. In contrast, the high-speed rail line will cut through the heart of the valley, and Fresno and Bakersfield are key transportation hubs along the route.
The first operating segment of the high-speed line will run from Bakersfield in the south to Merced in the north. The vision is to ultimately extend service to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even before those planned expansions, the rail line will intersect with existing passenger rail in Merced and a satellite bus network in Bakersfield to create more seamless nonauto travel options.
Local officials believe that connectivity will open all sorts of horizons: making it easier for people to live inland, where housing is relatively affordable, and still work on the coast. Access to jobs — particularly nonfarm jobs — and top-notch colleges will expand. And a region notably lacking in hospitals and healthcare professionals will have more options.
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