Are we the storage bin of California’s dreams?

The UC Merced campus as seen from the air. The campus is expanding rapidly after a building project was initiated in 2017.
The UC Merced campus as seen from the air. The campus is expanding rapidly after a building project was initiated in 2017.

Have any grand but unfocused ambitions? How about any half-finished projects clogging up your garage?

Send them to Merced. That’s what the state of California does.

Perhaps this is because it’s so convenient: a city of 83,000 people in the center of the San Joaquin Valley. Whatever the reason, Merced is taking on a role as the self-storage unit for California’s abandoned dreams.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom turned to Merced as he decided to slow the state’s high-speed rail project. In his state of the state speech, the governor said there wasn’t enough money to complete the first phase, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. At least not yet. So Newsom declared high-speed rail would run from Bakersfield to at Merced.

The governor soon faced an onslaught of criticism, including an effort by President Trump to claw back rail funding. The governor has since claimed he’s still committed to the entire statewide project.

High-speed rail was first proposed in the 1980s. In 1996, the state created a high-speed rail authority. In 2008, voters approved a bond to fund part of its cost, and in 2009, the feds gave the project a couple extra billions via the stimulus act. But in 2019, this state-of-the-art transit system might only reach Merced. A Bay Area-based rail system called Altamont Commuter Express also is scheduled to reach Merced, but not until 2026.

Merced could use the help – it suffered the largest drop in home values in the nation during the Great Recession. But the city has done well with another state project – the University of California, Merced, though that’s a long story, too.

The UC announced it would open a 10th campus in 1988. But not until 1995 was Merced announced as the location. Due to budget politics and environmental litigation, UC Merced didn’t open until 2005. Only now does the campus feel like it’s ramping up with a project to double its size, add research labs and fitness facilities, and accommodate 10,000 students by 2020 gets under way.

The best news is that the city of Merced is feeling some benefits.

In addition to expanding its main campus on the city outskirts, the university has also expanded downtown, first by renting space and then, last year, by opening a $45 million Downtown Campus Center that consolidates its business functions. The building, and the new spending from university workers, has inspired new investment in downtown that includes a hotel and a renovation of The Mainzer, a historic theater.

UC Merced’s downtown center is a short walk to the likely site of its high-speed rail station, where Martin Luther King Jr. Way meets State Route 99. From that spot, it’s possible to imagine Merced as a model 21st century crossroads, with integrated transit that gives educated workers a way to get to meetings and even jobs on the coast, while reducing greenhouse gases. Merced’s relatively cheap land and lower cost of living might attract more people looking for housing, and its university could double or triple in size, radically raising Central Valley education levels.

But for all that to happen, high-speed rail would have to continue past Merced into the Bay Area; California universities would have to transform themselves radically into larger and more generous institutions, and the state would have to provide the foresight, strategic planning and solid funding that makes big projects possible.

A more likely outcome: California can’t finish building the future it promises, so Merced must keep taking what it can get.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.