Do you remember the California high-speed rail project? It’s still a reality in these Central Valley communities

But that’s not the case in the Central Valley, where construction has been underway for years and the first trains are expected to start running eventually. The High-Speed ​​Rail Authority, which is overseeing the project, says it hopes the first segment of the line, between Bakersfield and Merced, will be ready for passenger service by 2030 – although officials acknowledge also that other delays are possible.

A long line of concrete columns near Fresno that will eventually support railroad tracks for one of the first sections of California’s high-speed rail project. (Saul González/KQED)

That’s significantly reduced from the original plan, which called for the entire 520-mile stretch between LA and San Francisco to be completed by 2029.

At Fresno’s southern edge, adjacent to Highway 99, is the Cedar Viaduct, a 3,700-foot-long structure with four massive arches and a concrete bed wide enough to accommodate future lanes.

This viaduct, which is already something of a local landmark, is just one of more than 30 active high-speed rail project construction sites in the Central Valley.

“On a typical day, on average, we have around 1,100 workers spread across various sites,” said Toni Tinoco, deputy manager of the High-Speed ​​​​Rail Authority. “It’s all between Madera County, all the way to the town of Wasco. That’s 119 miles to cover. And we have a lot of men and women of different trades going to these sites, building these structures every day.”

Since its launch seven years ago, the project has created more than 7,000 jobs and helped support nearly 700 small businesses across the state, she says, providing everything from building parts to office supplies.

These economic benefits have been particularly important for communities in the Central Valley, she argues.

A worker in an orange vest and a white helmet is hammering a steel beam.
A construction worker hits a steel beam on the Cedar Overpass, near Fresno. (Saul González/KQED)

“Historically, we’ve had very, very high unemployment rates here,” she said. “High-speed rail has been one of the drivers in bringing that number down. Being able to employ people. I mean, our workers and contractors are here, they live here, they invest, they eat, they buy different products outside of construction, so that’s huge.”

Many components of the project, such as beams and huge precast concrete slabs, are being fabricated in a 40-acre open-air yard surrounded by agricultural fields outside the community of Hanford, about 30 miles south from Fresno. The finished products are then loaded onto flatbed trucks and transported to worksites across the Valley.

Doing the work here, unlike plants in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, cuts transportation costs, says Craig Watt, a project supervisor who works for private contractor Dragados-Flatiron Joint Venture.

“And many local pre-engineered component suppliers in the state of California don’t have the capacity to meet our demand,” he said..

A man and women, both wearing orange construction vests and hard hats, pose for a photo.
Husband and wife ironworkers Desrae Ruiz (left) and Keith Villagrana say their family have only benefited from the work on the high-speed rail project. (Saul González/KQED)

Driller Desrae Ruiz has worked at this site, alongside her husband, for several years, and says she feels they are both part of something historic.

“I would love to see the finished product and be able to say, ‘I helped build this train with my husband,'” Ruiz said. “Like, it’s something you can hold on to and no one can take it away from me, so it feels good.”

Jose P. Rogers