SAN JOSE, Calif.—California's Central Valley and Silicon Valley are less than three hours apart by car, but the small towns and vast stretches of farmland along the middle of the state are a world away from $3,000-per-month studio apartments and jammed freeways.
America's first-ever high-speed rail line would shrink the distance between the two estranged valleys. As soon as 2025, it could connect the nation's breadbasket with its most powerful economic engine, whisking people from the agri-industrial city of Fresno to San Jose in under an hour.
In recent weeks, that vision appeared to be coming together with lightning-like speed—something considered impossible before June 6.
That's when search giant Google announced plans to build a 20,000-employee campus within easy walking distance of San Jose's downtown Diridon Station, where both bullet and BART trains would stop, raising some tantalizing possibilities:
Will the 220-mph train become a Silicon Valley Express for droves of millennials and others who can barely afford to rent, let alone buy, a Bay Area home? Will high-tech companies begin moving some of their operations to a part of the state where a family can still buy a nice three-bedroom house for $300,000, triggering a monumental population shift in California?
"Why not build new communities, well-designed communities, sustainable communities in the Central Valley?" asked Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public policy group. Why not "have more folks live there and have an efficient and pleasant train commute into the Bay Area?"
It's still not a sure thing the train will ever reach San Jose. The state has raised just $12.2 billion—mostly from a voter-approved bond—for the $20.7 billion "valley to valley" section connecting Fresno to Gilroy and San Jose. And proceeds from California's cap-and-trade auctions are the only other major source of funding for the project. But construction has already started in the San Joaquin Valley, and the train is becoming more real by the day.
Estimated fares—up to $63 between Fresno and San Jose—could be prohibitive for commuters, but companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook are already subsidizing transportation costs for workers by offering free seats on cushy buses that pick up techies from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. They could certainly afford to buy down the cost of a train ticket.
"I know the pricing is an issue, and there's a real question as to whether it can really serve as a commuter rail at the fares contemplated, but it's not hard to imagine how companies would be willing to pay to ensure their employees could get here from more affordable communities," said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Nine years after Californians approved the $9.95 billion bond that launched the high-speed rail project—money that was tied up in a lawsuit until 2013—the bullet train still holds an imaginary aura. That's true even in Fresno, where parallel rows of towering viaduct columns are popping up across the city. "Largely, people don't believe that it's going to happen, if I'm being really honest," said Irma Olguin Jr., co-founder of Bitwise Industries, a technology company.
Sitting on a couch at an old downtown car dealership that her company transformed into an industrial-chic work space with Fresno-centric artwork and sweeping city views, Olguin said she wants to see the state build "the whole damn thing" from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.
Last year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority decided to start laying tracks from the Central Valley to San Jose rather than south to Los Angeles.
While it might seem like a faraway concept to some, the bullet-train project is hard to miss while driving down Interstate 99 in the Central Valley. Entire roads, warehouses, restaurants and a gun range have been moved out of the way to accommodate the train's future path.
Workers there are now digging trenches, and building bridges and a two-mile-long viaduct to carry the train on its way to and from the Bay Area—over and under freeways, past neighborhoods, between miles and miles of crops and through the Diablo mountain range near the Pacheco Pass.
Fresno's downtown station will be built at the site of the old Southern Pacific depot, erected in 1889. According to a plaque outside, that railroad "founded Fresno, brought settlers and shipped their crops, developing this desert into the agri-business capital of the world."
Terry Ogle, an engineer at the rail authority who is overseeing design and construction in the Central Valley, said he feels as though he is part of the region's next big historic shift. "This is the biggest thing that is going on in the country right now," said Ogle, standing on a dusty site under the broiling July sun. "This is the Bay Bridge of the Central Valley—right here."
The $64 billion project has been politically divisive from the beginning. Republicans in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., have tried to cut off its funding, calling it a "boondoggle" and a "choo-choo train to nowhere." And Democrats have privately questioned whether it will ever get to San Jose, let alone Los Angeles. But high-speed rail—which voters approved during the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to chug ahead under the protective wing of Gov. Jerry Brown.
In 2014, the Legislature committed to its construction an ongoing 25 percent of the auction proceeds from the state's landmark climate program—cap and trade. The money comes from businesses which are essentially paying to pollute.
Last week's vote to extend cap and trade through 2030 lifted much of the uncertainty clouding the program, but the Legislature could decide to shift future proceeds away from high-speed rail. And Brown, arguably the bullet train's loudest cheerleader, has less than 18 months left in office—a timeline that is not lost on officials, who know they have to make the train materialize as soon as possible.
"We'd like to get as much done as we can while he is still the governor," said Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority's board.
In fact, the success of the entire $64 billion project could hinge on the valley-to-valley line.
"When we open the service, it will be the first true high-speed rail service in America. Most Americans have no experience with it," Richard said. "Our biggest challenge right now is that this is something people just can't conceive of. Once they see it in action, even in this first segment—once they see it and once they experience high-speed rail, a lot of people will look at that and say, 'Gee we'd really like to extend that to my community.' "
One of the project's strongest supporters in the more politically conservative Central Valley is Swearengin, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for state controller in 2014.
Fresno for years has been preparing for the train, she said, rezoning downtown to allow for the construction of thousands of new homes near the station. It was one way to protect the county's valuable agricultural land from being chewed up and turned into subdivisions.
But Swearengin wants the train to bring new jobs, not just new housing, to her valley.
"Already the Bay Area has the greatest concentration of economic wealth of arguably any place in the country, which is creating the challenges the Bay Area is now experiencing," she said. "So we think the solution isn't just to plop housing in the Central Valley. We actually want to see a good mix of jobs that are getting priced out of the Bay Area as well."
By all accounts, Bay Area businesses are not yet looking to move to Fresno, Merced or Bakersfield. Some, no doubt, are still skeptical that the train will ever run, or they are waiting until it is closer to completion. A Google spokeswoman said it was too early for the company to comment on the impact of the bullet train.
But Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, argues that the Silicon Valley Express opens a wealth of new possibilities for businesses and their workers. It is, he argues, a train to somewhere.
"Anyone who thinks Silicon Valley, the Earth's epicenter of innovation, is quote unquote nowhere," he said, "is truly not paying attention."