Local work force may be forced to sidelines on rail project

Merced exists because of the railroad built to take products out of the Valley.

But the proposed 220-mph high-speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which will come through Merced County if Proposition 1A is passed, will do the opposite — bring things here.

Namely, jobs and development.

Most who talk of the train coming down the line speak of its economic benefits to the Valley.

And they are hard to ignore. The nearly $10 billion bond to build the system will no doubt create jobs, and hopefully integrate the Valley with the rest of the state.

While jobs will be created, all boats may not rise with the high-speed tide. There will be people left out, admit local officials and the system's planners.

"There is the danger of leaving a huge number of people behind," said Gregory Wellman, Atwater's city manager. "But what do we have now? A lot left behind."

The "left behind" he speaks of are the 17 percent of the population under the poverty line in a county with an unemployment rate twice that of the state’s. As of 2004, just over half of the county had graduated from high school — 63 percent.

Many of these locals may not be skilled enough for any jobs brought by the railroad. Still, jobs will follow.

"High-speed rail will trigger job creation within the Central Valley, especially in the service, transportation, communications, utilities, and finance, insurance and real estate sectors," writes UC Merced Economics Professor Shawn Kantor in a recent report on the high-speed rail's impact on the Valley's economy.

According to Kantor, the plan estimates that some 160,000 construction jobs will be created to build the rail system alone.

For example, if the former Castle Air Force Base is used as a hub for the construction and maintenance of the system, 2,000 people will be needed to work there, said Anthony Daniels, the High-Speed Rail Authority’s project director. This work force would maintain rolling stock and help build the tracks and stations.

While the Rail Authority plans to work with the UC and Merced College on job-training programs, said Daniels, many of the skilled labor would have to come from outside the area. “You’ll have more people coming in than could be trained,” he said.

The problem is not much different from previous companies that came to Merced and had trouble hiring locals, Wellman points out.

The track record for U.S. Penitentiary Atwater and the Cingular Call Center are examples of this. Both had problems finding enough qualified employees without criminal records or who could pass drug tests, explained Wellman.

But other benefits would accrue from the project besides promised jobs. New businesses, home buyers and tax revenues are projected to arrive into the Valley.

An estimated $46 million in new tax revenue would flow into Valley coffers as well, said Kantor’s report.

One unusual benefit of the system, said Kantor, would be a shift of the financial relationship between the Valley and the rest of the state. For every dollar spent building the system in the Valley, its taxpayers will only shell out 16 to 25 cents.

Another major benefit would be the intended reduction in traffic congestion on Highway 99 and hence air pollution. An estimated 2,000 passengers will ride the train from Merced each day.

Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo, the county’s point man on the project, said there could be some downsides. Environmental concerns will have to be addressed, as well as property owner compensation, he said. But he thought that, overall, the train would be a boon to the area. “My personal opinion is that the pros outweigh the cons,” he said.

For a group of UC Merced students waiting for their train at the Amtrak station, the high-speed rail would simply make their trips easier. Quinn Dubin, a UC Merced freshmen from Santa Monica, said he’d love a high-speed train. A lot of students use the current Amtrak train because it’s the cheapest way to travel. “It would make our life that much easier,” said Dubin, about the plan.

On Friday morning he was headed to Santa Cruz. That meant, on Amtrak, a six-hour trip: a train to Stockton, a bus to San Jose and another bus to Santa Cruz.

So much for speed.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.