Technically, California’s San Joaquin Valley – the drainage plain of the San Joaquin River – begins a few miles south of Sacramento and ends a few miles south of Fresno.


Dan Walters
CALmatters Commentary

Politically, the valley has undergone several evolutions, coinciding with demographic changes.

However, in political and economic terms, it stretches even further south to the Tehachapi Mountains, south of Bakersfield.

The 300-mile-long valley is the heart of California’s largest-in-the-nation agricultural industry and much of its oil production, home to 4 million people (10 percent of the state’s population) and, unfortunately, has some of the state’s deepest poverty and most polluted air.

Politically, the valley has undergone several evolutions, coinciding with demographic changes.

Dust Bowl refugees who settled in the region in the 1930s tended to bring their Democratic leanings with them and until the 1960s, it mostly sent Democrats – albeit of the conservative, pro-agriculture variety – to Congress and the Legislature, personified by Fresno’s long-serving congressman, Bernie Sisk.

However, the civil rights and antiwar turmoils of the era, and a leftward drift in Democratic politics, gave Republicans an opening and it became a GOP stronghold in the 1970s and 1980s.

Arnold Schwarzenegger More or Less Adopted the Valley

That’s been reversing again, thanks to the general erosion of the Republican brand in California and Donald Trump’s presidency, which has generated a surge of political activism by the region’s majority Latino population.

Last year, two of the region’s GOP-held congressional districts flipped, as well as two Senate districts. That said, John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, did well in the region against the eventual winner, Democrat Gavin Newsom.

San Joaquin Valley civic leaders and politicians of both partisan stripes have long complained that it gets short shrift because the state’s politics are dominated by the heavily populated coastal metropolitan centers.

A lack of convenient transportation linking it to coastal cities and educational shortcomings have, they say, crippled the region’s efforts to diversify its agriculture-centered economy and lift its residents out of poverty.

As governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger more or less adopted the valley, making numerous visits, setting aside $1 billion to upgrade Highway 99, the region’s transportation backbone, and supporting a statewide bullet train system that would connect it to the rest of California.

Successor Jerry Brown was even more supportive of the project and although it has been a divisive issue – opposed by most farmers, for example – civic leaders saw it as a magic bullet, as it were, that would allow the region to join the state’s post-industrial, technology-heavy economy.

A Project in Great Distress

Despite his relatively poor showing in the region last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom clearly wants to be known as its champion, especially in lowering poverty.

“I want people to remember things are happening in Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield. A lot of people in California consider these a drive-by or a flyover or only an ag story, but there’s so much more.” — Gov. Gavin Newsom

“I want people to remember things are happening in Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield,” Newsom said during a visit to the region this month. “A lot of people in California consider these a drive-by or a flyover or only an ag story, but there’s so much more.”

However, the occasion of that visit was to placate local leaders after announcing that while he wants to complete a section of bullet train track in the valley, the rest of the system will be in limbo.

“The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address.

It was an accurate portrayal of a project in great distress, but a muddled message that he tried to rationalize later by saying he hadn’t given up on connecting the valley to the rest of the state, albeit without providing any specifics.

Did it leave San Joaquin Valley’s residents wondering whether they are second-class Californians?

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to

One Response

  1. Martin Querin

    1. The “bullet train” (HSR) is a great project for the Valley and the State. The Central Valley is an economic sucking sound. Agri-business requires direct and indirect subsidies, the communities that support it require direct and indirect subsidies. The irony is that much of the strongest opposition comes from the Valley and it is not paying for it, insrtead it is receiving the indirect subsidy of the work.
    2. The impact of the HSR on agri-business – the total distance from Bakersfield to Modesto is about 200 miles. Ignoring the fact that several miles of the HSR right-of-way (ROW) are urban, or sandwiched between the 99 freeway and BNSF railrod (non-farmland), and given the approximately 100-foot ROW requirement, that’s a little over 2,400 acres. California farms over 400-million acres, or in decimal fraction, it amounts to 0.00000606 of the farmland in California.

    Economically-according to an annual report prepared by UC Davis, Agribusiness generates approximately 1.45% of the States GDP of $2.9 Trillion, or $42.1 Billion. So the loss to the State GDP of that farmland would be 9/10,000ths of a percent…in real terms nothing.
    3. The problem – in order to do anything in California, you have to concede the best solution for multiple compromises with a myriad of special interests.
    -If you were building a 200-mph train that you wanted to work, you would turn north as left Bakersfield and blow through inexpensive greenfield, direct to Fresno. If there was a stop in between it would be Visalia, where they have a Fedex hub, so you could also ship light-freight in off-peak (freight pays, passenger rail requires subsidies). But…then Kings County would be the only southern Co. without a major metro hub, so they get a stop in Hanford. And as far as carrying freight, of fruit to the major metro regions in off-peak hours…then you would have to fight with the railroad, truckers and air frieght.
    -If you were building a 200-mph train that you wanted to work, you wouldn’t spend a billion dollars to widen the 99 to 6 lanes from Bakersfield to Sacramento, you would reduce it to 2 lanes and use the vacated ROW for as much of the train as you could and force truck traffic over to I-5. Increasing trip times to drive north to south would incentivize using the HSR. You would have the added benefit of being able to redirect your already underfunded highway maintenance funds from the 1,100 mile road diet to maintaining the HSR. Again a fight with truckers and short-sighted business.
    -If you were building a 200-mph train that you wanted to work, you would require every city that was going to get a stop to create a masterplanned inner-city and intra-community intermodal mass transit plan and their General Plan would have to include density requirements based on concentric distance from the station.

    It’s not that the HSR is a bad idea, almost all of the opposition is based on faulty logic, or flat-out lies; it is the way we do projects in California that is a bad idea. We neglect the benefit of the many to concede to the political will of the relatively few angry myopic perspectives that cannot see that in most instances the project, if well implemented well(that is, ignoring their rhetoric), would in fact actually benefit them. What we end up with is a Frankenstein project, something cobbled together from the good ideas and the scraps that were discarded on the planning table early on and even some bad ideas, that all needed to be stitched in to make some constituency happy.

    Not that there are not drawbacks, there are real issues that would need to be addressed…and are not; but they are not insurmountable. Unfortunately we never get to ask the question, “if I wanted to design a 200 mph train that worked, what would I do?”


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