Business, Economics and Jobs

High-speed rail could transform Fresno’s poorest neighborhood. Will Trump get on the train?

an unfinished train track in fresno

A set of railroad tracks is pictured prior to a groundbreaking ceremony for the California High Speed Rail in Fresno, California, Jan. 6, 2015. 

Credit:

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

The plan: cover one of the most destitute tracts of California’s poorest major city with a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and watch dust turn to dollars.

But soon, funding for the project known as Running Horse evaporated. Debt ballooned.

Editor's note: This story is part of the Center for Public Integrity’s “Abandoned in America” series, which profiles communities connected by their profound needs and sense of political abandonment at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration has declared the nation’s war on poverty “largely over and a success."  Part I: How ‘The Wall’ could kill a Texas city  Part II: 'Hope to hopelessness': Will government step up after second storm? Part IVWhat stands in the way of Native American voters?

Across the continent, Donald Trump smelled opportunity. He wooed city officials and talked big — really big — about how he’d save Running Horse, schedule a PGA Tour event and transform Southwest Fresno right along with it.

"I have a feeling I can make this the hot side of town," Trump declared in June 2007, several days after he toured the future golfing grounds, local politicians in tow.

Neighborhood residents — many impoverished — fantasized about new businesses and low crime and Tiger Woods spottings, to say nothing of a billionaire’s imprimatur stamped across their blighted blocks. Chief among the smitten: then-Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.

“He loves this community,” Autry, a Republican, said of Trump at the time. “There’s something about this community that’s touched him and this organization. … He doesn’t mind going into distressed areas and making a mark and bringing hope and opportunity.”

But instead of a deal, Trump brought demands.

His then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, a man destined for a federal prison, emailed Autry a list of 13 deliverables needed to make the Running Horse golf development “a successful one.”

A veterans home site and halfway house must relocate.

A one-mile perimeter around Running Horse land should become a municipal redevelopment zone.

Without using the term “eminent domain,” Cohen asked Fresno to buy the property of recalcitrant landowners so Trump could go forth and build.

Trump would ultimately offer $25 million for the 400-acre Running Horse plot — far less than would fill the financial hole the project found itself in, and much lower than what the land’s private owner would accept. Fresno city and county officials soon began to balk at Trump’s government-incentive wish list, which they considered far too rich for taxpayers.

Negotiations crumbled in late 2007.

Running Horse is now an almond grove.

On a cloudless day in January 2015, politicians and dignitaries again gathered to present a vision of prosperity and transformation. This time, instead of a golf course, they broke ground on California’s high-speed rail system, the first station for which would be built atop what’s now an empty plot, a couple miles east of Running Horse, near where Southwest Fresno abuts the city’s downtown.

A high-speed train, they said, could whisk Fresno residents to Silicon Valley in an hour, and Los Angeles in not much time more, establishing California’s fifth-most populous city as an essential connecting point for northern and southern California. A “significant point in time for the city of Fresno” is how then-Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, declared the moment.

Locally, high-speed rail backers have billed the project as a coming economic boon to desperately poor residents of Southwest Fresno. The neighborhood would find itself flush with businesses, jobs and prosperity that for decades have eluded it.

But Southwest Fresno continues suffering, deep in poverty, despite a strong national economy that now-President Donald Trump so frequently touts. And Trump, Southwest Fresno’s fleeting savior-in-waiting, has shown little interest in pumping badly needed federal money into what may — or may not — finally be the neighborhood’s panacea.

While a few sections of elevated track bed have sprouted skyward across Fresno County, and large signs along downtown Fresno’s rail right-of-way herald “HIGH-SPEED RAIL CONSTRUCTION. Putting America to Work,” the empty plot where politicians four years ago ceremonially signed a steel rail remains empty.

a sign for high-speed rain in fresno

A large sign at the edge of downtown Fresno marks the corridor where the initial phase of California’s high-speed rail project is being built.

Credit:

Dave Levinthal/CPI

The most optimistic projection for initial service to commence is 2022, when Bakersfield, California’s ninth-most populous city, would be connected via Fresno to Madera, the state’s 132nd.

The full San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line wouldn’t arrive until at least 2029. Meanwhile, cost estimates for it have bloated to more than $77 billion — up about $13 billion from two years earlier. The overall project is nowhere close to being fully funded.

And while government infrastructure investment may be one of the last bastions of semi-reliable bipartisanship, there’s an utter lack of high-speed rail orthodoxy among key elected officials representing Fresnans — including among partisan kin.

Voters in November will choose between re-electing rail-backing US Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Elizabeth Heng, a Republican who derides Costa’s stance as “a career politician misallocating government resources.” High-speed rail evangelist Jerry Brown leaves the California governor’s mansion in January, to be succeeded either by Democrat Gavin Newsom, who generally supports the rail project, or Republican John Cox, who during a September visit to Fresno declared it “a monument to corruption” and a “train to nowhere.” Meanwhile, Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, a Republican, is a vocal rail supporter, while fellow Republican and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson — who now represents much of the city in the California Assembly — is a fierce critic.

Fresno is one of six communities the Center for Public Integrity is profiling this month on the eve of a critical midterm election that will decide the balance of power in Washington. These communities are connected by their profound needs and sense of political abandonment at a time when Trump’s administration has declared the nation’s war on poverty “largely over and a success.”

At best, the future of fast rail travel is uncertain, and in Southwest Fresno, residents express skepticism that this speeding train is just another Running Horse, destined to fail amid political battles in which they feel like pawns, not players, their needs again unmet.

“The speed rail is useless for us, so much money out of the budget,” said Terry Hernandez, a longtime social services worker who lives in a dusty subdivision where urban Southwest Fresno gives way to unincorporated county farmland. “This is money that could help the homeless, build a center for children. We have so many needs right now out here. You can’t forget us. We exist.”

Overall public enthusiasm for California high-speed rail has waned in the 10 years since voters approved a state bond initiative worth $10 billion. And now, facing a financial shortfall with no ready fix, Brown is seeking an additional federal boost from someone all too familiar to Fresnans scorned: President Donald Trump.

“You have lamented that we don’t have ‘one fast train’ in our country,” Brown wrote to Trump earlier this year. “Well, Mr. President, in California we are trying to fix that. We have a world-class train system under construction. We invite you to come aboard and truly ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Hopelessness in Southwest Fresno

Think, for a moment, of your young daughter, or your eight-year-old nephew.

They’re bouncy. They want to play. So you tote a Frisbee, a football and a picnic lunch to the park around the block, a park like many in wealthy North Fresno or suburban Clovis, where the grass is dark green, the equipment is new and time seems to slow while workaday cares dissolve.

Southwest Fresno’s children have Hyde Park, a park you smell before you see.

The neighborhood’s largest standard city park, it’s a mound situated atop a former garbage dump and across South Fruit Avenue from the Darling Ingredients rendering plant, where the bones and flesh of slaughtered animals are cooked and processed for use in farm feed.

hyde park in fresno

Hyde Park is Southwest Fresno’s largest general use park, but conditions there are bleak: dead grass and trees, the stench of an animal rendering plant across the street, a parcel of land containing toxins immediately to its south. Hyde Park itself is built upon a former junkyard.

Credit:

Dave Levinthal/CPI

On a July afternoon with a 107-degree wind whipping through the park’s half-dead grass and trees, the odor overwhelmed nostrils and singed taste buds. No swing sets, slides or splash pads are found. Beetles wriggle around a dead crow.

To the south, there’s a chain-link fence that separates Hyde Park from what used to be an auto salvage yard, where environmental regulators in 1982 found toxic heavy metals: lead, chromium, arsenic. Officials “capped” the contaminated soil, but the land has a new owner who’s allowed large vehicles to drive over it. Although there’s no evidence of leakage, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control in July warned the owner of potential violations and concerns from nearby residents about underground contaminants emerging.  

Hyde Park is an enduring emblem of Southwest Fresno’s decades-long bedragglement, largely at the hands of people — either through action or neglect — more politically powerful than the community’s own residents.

During the 1930s, as largely poor black and Hispanic families flocked to Southwest Fresno, financial lenders “redlined” most of the neighborhood, depressing investment and reinforcing pre-existing poverty and racial segregation. The realignment and expansion of US Highway 99 through Fresno during the 1940s and 1950s cut a concrete gash between Southwest Fresno and all points east, most notably dividing it from the city’s Chinatown and business districts. Permissive city zoning allowed heavy industries and pollution-spewing factories to gobble up cheap land and operate amid homes and schools.

Taken together, Southwest Fresno residents are the poorest and sickest people of Fresno, which itself ranks second among all US metro areas in concentrated poverty, according to a survey of US Census data by 24/7 Wall Street. (For every two Southwest Fresno children, one lives in poverty.)

To live in Southwest Fresno is to expect you’ll die up to two decades sooner than people who live a few miles away in affluent Fresno neighborhoods, a 2012 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report concluded.

Many Southwest Fresno residents, the vast majority of whom are black, Latino, Asian or multiracial, simply have no choice but to stay. In some census tracts here, families’ annual incomes average less than $20,000. Nicer Fresno neighborhoods are laughably unaffordable. Moving to another city or state is the privilege of wealth they’ll never attain, requiring the quitting of a job or the abandonment of relatives.

A bullet train station to save Southwest Fresno?

Might as well build a rocket-ship launchpad, some residents scoff. The notion of buying a three-figure ticket to travel up to 220 miles per hour some evening next decade doesn’t compute when you’re struggling to pay $1.25 today for a city bus. If Brown or Trump or anyone else wants to pour billions of dollars into Fresno and the surrounding Central Valley, they wonder, why not spend it on crime reduction, or job creation, or improving schools or giving families a park that’s more California and less Chernobyl?

“If the politicians cared, they would spend that money on us, the poor,” said Mary Louise Huey, 82, who’s lived in Southwest Fresno since 1939. “But nobody thinks much of us in Southwest Fresno. We have a hard time helping ourselves because there’s a lot going against us.”

Several dozen other current and former Southwest Fresno residents interviewed this summer offered similar stories with the same conclusion: After decades of neglect, the community is in desperate need of massive government intervention and incentives — now — that can help people lift themselves out of poverty and offer hope amid hopelessness, homes for the city’s legions of homeless. High-speed rail seems attractive in theory, many of them said, while insisting Southwest Fresno needs more than trickle-down benefits of a project years from fruition.

What Southwest Fresno also needs now is people, like Irv Hernandez, a 38-year-old plumbing company worker and family man on the rise, to stay. Hernandez and his wife moved to Southwest Fresno with his three children and her three children — the “brown Brady Bunch,” he jokes — because there were few places in Fresno where a four-bedroom rental house could be had for $1,000 per month.

a man with his children sitting on a couch

Irv Hernandez, who lives with his wife and their six children in Southwest Fresno, says he wants to help make his neighborhood a better place to live. But crime, environmental concerns and a lack of opportunity concern him. “We’re thinking about moving when we have enough saved up,” he said this summer.

Credit:

Dave Levinthal/CPI

Hernandez is keen on building his neighborhood from the inside out. He’s hoped to see some sign of greater civic engagement from a neighborhood where voter turnout during the 2016 presidential election stood at 49 percent, while the rest of Fresno’s rate cracked 65 percent, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of county voting data indicates. He’s often tried to invite neighbors over for a chat and a beer, to no avail. He’s waited for elected leaders at any level to make more than a token effort to engage Southwest Fresno with a permanent presence — something that goes beyond showing up at a community center or church event once a year — but feels underwhelmed by their efforts.

So when Hernandez saves enough money to buy a house, perhaps a year or two from now, he’s looking beyond Southwest Fresno toward Fresno’s Sunnyside neighborhood, on the southeast side of town near the airport, where schools are better, gangs aren’t prevalent and one isn’t frightened walking outside at night.

“It’s not that I hate this area. I want to like it,” Hernandez said. “It’s that it’s a community without community in a lot of ways. It’s that I don’t see anything changing. So, I have to change.”

How high-speed rail could transform Southwest Fresno

What does Brand, Fresno’s mayor, have to say to Hernandez and Southwest Fresno residents like him?

“Be patient — it will pay off,” Brand says.

It will pay, he says, through a $70 million grant from the California Strategic Growth Council’s “Transformative Climate Communities” fund that’s directly tied to Southwest Fresno’s designation as “one of the state’s most ‘disadvantaged’ neighborhoods.”

a homeless camp in fresno

Today, many empty or abandoned blocks line the corridor where California high-speed trains are supposed to travel through Fresno. Many of the city’s homeless residents use this desolate area to camp during nights and hang out during daylight.

Credit:

Dave Levinthal/CPI

It will pay off when that money builds a Fresno City College satellite campus, funds new bus service, builds dozens of affordable homes, renovates hundreds more, plants thousands of trees and creates 17 acres of pristine parks and community gardens — decisions made in large part by a council of neighborhood residents including Ivanka Saunders, who calls it an “example of what can happen if you get riled up.”

It will pay off because Fresno city officials, advised in part by Southwest Fresno residents, last year developed the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan — a blueprint for making the area more livable, economically viable and connected to the rest of Fresno. It also details what’s no longer tolerable: polluting industrial sites, heavy truck traffic, Hyde Park being considered a park at all. One goal: draw to Southwest Fresno businesses such as Amazon and Ulta, which have set up job-generating warehouse facilities in nearby Southeast Fresno.

“We can be a successful city,” Brand insists. “But we have to believe in ourselves.”

mayor brand in fresno

At Fresno City Hall, Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, a Republican, explains how he believes economic development projects — particularly California high-speed rail — could significantly improve life in Southwest Fresno, a historically neglected part of the city.

Credit:

Dave Levinthal/CPI

Brand’s sentiment is increasingly echoed throughout Fresno, a city that, by its own leaders’ acknowledgement, has been a “stepchild” — fated never to achieve the luster of Los Angeles, the Bay Area or Napa. A Thursday evening drive through the largely low- and mid-rise lined downtown illustrates this notion in shades of drab: boarded up storefronts, vacant commercial buildings, pedestrian traffic that’s … there isn’t pedestrian traffic.

But then a Jaguar dealership ad crackles over the local classic rock radio station. “The next time somebody asks you where you’re from, tell ’em: ‘I’m Fresno proud,’” a man’s voice intones while noting the dealership is opening a new showroom not along some tony exurban boulevard, but in downtown Fresno itself.

Moments later, the white lights from the city’s gorgeous, retro-styled minor league ballpark illuminate the nearby Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company Beer Garden, where at least 200 people — most in their 20s and 30s — are reveling after a Fresno Grizzlies extra-innings victory.

A few blocks on, one of the several Bitwise Industries tech hub buildings, which together house and foster more than 250 small companies, buzzes with human activity inside and out. Only five years ago, Bitwise didn’t exist.

High-speed rail, Brand says, isn’t some one-off Fresno Hail Mary. It’s a project that will take a city that’s already building toward a more prosperous future and help transport it from afterthought to focal point. Southwest Fresno perhaps most of all.

“If you want to make sure things don’t keep repeating themselves, you have to be part of the solution,” said Lee Ann Eager, president and chief executive of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, a public-private nonprofit that’s spearheading Fresno’s high-speed rail efforts. The rail project “is our game-changer.”

Eager and fellow rail backers envision a future where people will live in a neighborhood such as Southwest Fresno — well-kept, three-bedroom, single-family homes that today easily sell for less than $150,000 — and work in San Francisco, where the median home price is $750,000, or San Jose, where the median home price is $1 million.

That’s impossible today.

By car, it’s four hours, one way, to San Francisco — if the traffic gods are benevolent. By Amtrak, expect at least four-and-a-half hours, including a trip on a transfer bus.

Passengers traveling one July morning on Amtrak’s San Joaquins line train from Fresno to Bakersfield, California — about 110 miles — almost universally hailed the idea of high-speed rail.

On this day, the trip took a leisurely two hours and 27 minutes. A high-speed train could span the two Central Valley cities in less than an hour.

Betty Bedard, 79, was making the six-hour journey from Merced, California, north of Fresno, to visit her sister in Pasadena, California. As the train clattered along, Bedard mused how her journey that day wasn’t any speedier than her first train trip as a young girl of perhaps five or six years old, when a steam locomotive pulled her passenger car. Save for Amtrak’s Acela train between Washington, DC, and Boston — it tops out at 150 miles per hour but typically operates closer to conventional train speeds — the United States is devoid of anything resembling high-speed rail.

“I would ride the train all the time if it was faster,” she said, noting how Europe, Japan and China all have high-speed rail. “We’re so far behind other countries.”

‘Irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars’

It’d be difficult enough for a united Fresno to sell the Trump administration on high-speed rail and its potential benefits for its residents.

But the divisions among greater Fresno’s own leaders are profound, and both sides are wooing Trump.

The anti-high-speed railers say California’s project has overrun its costs, blown its deadlines and simply isn’t worth it. They also predict trains won’t run nearly as fast as projected — a major point of unresolved debate.

Among the naysayers: state Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican and Fresno mayor from 1993 to 2001; Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman representing much of Fresno County; and Rep. David Valadao, a Republican who also represents part of Fresno County, whose press releases on the matter include headlines such as “Valadao erects another hurdle to high-speed rail.”

Last year, Valadao joined Nunes — an unabashed Trump supporter — and 12 other Republican members of California’s congressional delegation in urging US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to cut off further federal funding of high-speed rail in California.

To provide the project additional federal funding would represent “an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars,” their letter to Chao read. Signatories included House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Darrell Issa, who served most of this decade as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The area’s two high-speed rail dissenters are likely to stay put.

Valadao’s District 21 race against Democratic challenger TJ Cox receives a “likely Republican” designation from the Cook Political Report — in play, but barely. Recent polling indicates Nunes enjoys a relatively comfortable lead over Democratic challenger Andrew Janz, who’s raised significant money on his own — but not support from key national Democrats. Janz has been critical of California high-speed rail’s funding and leadership, but believes the federal government should help fund it because it’ll be a “game changer that provides good-paying jobs and economic development,” spokeswoman Mari Harren said.

The pro-high-speed rail side includes Brown, the outgoing governor; Brand, the current mayor; Swearengin, the former mayor; and Costa, Fresno’s Democratic congressman.

The Cook Political Report has ranked Costa’s District 16 race with Heng, an anti-high-speed rail Republican who did not return numerous requests for comment, as “likely Democratic.”

While Costa says he’s never considered high-speed rail a “silver bullet to solve the socio-economic issues of West Fresno,” he contends it’d be a massive catalyst for the community if coupled with investments in health care, job training and education.

Costa says it’s theoretically possible for California and private entities to build the train line without Washington, DC’s further involvement. But federal funding for it “would make a big difference and make it happen much faster,” Costa said.

Swearengin, Fresno’s mayor from 2009 to 2017 and now CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, says Fresno is on the cusp of something great, and high-speed rail is central to that success. The public and politicians just can’t lose their nerve.

“It’d be amazing if our congressional delegation could band together in support of the city of Fresno,” she said.

Will it all be for naught?

When Trump visited Fresno in 2016 as a presidential candidate, he had nothing to say about trains.

But he did revisit Running Horse.

“That thing is just sitting there,” Trump told the crowd. “I made a fortune by not doing it. … Some of the best deals are the deals you don’t do.”

Whether high-speed rail is a deal Trump wants done remains unclear.

Trump, who has long fashioned himself the consummate builder of big and beautiful things, in February 2017 mused to airline executives: “I don’t want to compete with your business, but we don’t have one fast train.”

High-speed rail advocates hailed Trump’s remark. But Trump has struggled since then to vault the nation’s roster of infrastructure needs, including rail, to anywhere near the forefront of the federal government’s agenda.

It’s partially his own fault. Trump last year upstaged his own “Infrastructure Week” by fuming on Twitter about political controversies of the day.

Come February 2018, Trump released a “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America,” and in doing so, he declared that the nation “will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land … with American heart, and American hands and American grit.”

Neither high-speed rail in general, nor California’s high-speed rail program specifically, received a material mention. Not that it matters: Congress wasn’t interested, and the White House has shelved the outline.

If anything, Trump’s signature rail-related action has been inaction: slow-walking federal support for the massive “Gateway” tunnel project that would help accommodate the hundreds of New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains — including not-quite-high-speed Acelas — chugging to and from Manhattan each day.

Although the federal government has historically spurred construction of transformative surface transportation projects — from the Transcontinental Railroad of the 1860s to the Interstate Highway System beginning in the 1950s — the first half of Trump’s first term has largely been an infrastructure building bust.

White House spokeswoman Lindsey Walters declined to comment on Trump’s plans for high-speed rail, referring questions to the US Department of Transportation.

Officials at the Department of Transportation declined to answer specific questions emailed to them by the Center for Public Integrity. The department’s press office sent a statement that said: “The Department’s working philosophy is that transit decisions must be made locally, and have funding support and agreement from localities and states in ways that work best for their community. The US transportation system has historically been very decentralized, so empowering decision-making at the state and local level is vitally important.”

The statement also noted that the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration have together this decade steered several billions dollars worth of federal investment into California high-speed rail.

Trump today, Brand says, can facilitate federal grants, regulatory relief, vision for a new age of transportation and prosperity. “To the president, I’d say we’re on the cusp of breaking out, and we need help,” Brand said. “You can help a lot of people including people of West Fresno.”

Southwest Fresno is an overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood where few Trump political supporters are found. They nevertheless want the president to pay their community attention and infuse it with investment — if not via the Trump Organization, then by the Trump administration.

a reverend in his garden in fresno

The Rev. Floyd Harris Jr. maintains an urban garden next to Southwest Fresno’s New Light for New Life Church of God, where he is assistant pastor. On an oppressively hot July afternoon, Harris was tending rows of vegetables with neighborhood children, teaching them how to hoe and weed. “We have to treat Southwest Fresno like this garden: you plant the seed, you tend to it and it grows,” he said.

Credit:

Dave Levinthal/CPI

“Donald Trump — we haven’t forgotten about you. Come on back. Keep your promise,” said the Rev. Floyd Harris Jr., assistant pastor of New Light for New Life Church. “Help us create a system where people who don’t have political clout get a seat at the table and get to ride that high-speed train instead of being oppressed in what is a world of living hell for poor people here.”

Dave Levinthal of CPI reported from Fresno, California. Suhauna Hussain and Joe Yerardi contributed to this report.

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