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In 1869, after years of delays and cost overruns, the transcontinental railroad was finally completed. It was the last missing link connecting the American West to the Eastern Seaboard, and a cross-country trip that had once taken six months was cut to around a week. Even better, it produced a commercial flow of grain, lumber and other commodities which in turn created a superstructure for shipping, trading and financing — and jobs, lots of jobs. For those reasons, the transcontinental is considered to be one of the greatest technological feats of the 19th century.
Now, almost 150 years later, the high-speed bullet train aims to hit a similar goal. Last month, officials broke ground on the system that will eventually link San Diego to San Francisco, and tie the California coast on the west (where most travelers live) to the Central Valley in the east (where the tracks lie). By binding together these four zones, the train could help breach the state’s cultural divides and revive its fortunes.
Yet the $68 billion mega-project is controversial. Some believe that it’s a frivolous expenditure, a legacy project for Gov. Jerry Brown, who hasn’t yet lined up all the necessary funds. Whereas Governor Stanford and his fellow robber barons gained federal aid by pushing the Pacific Railroad Act through Congress, today’s Republican-controlled Congress has already blocked any more federal dollars for the train. And the price tag will certainly swell before the last bolt is tightened by 2030.
Then there’s the issue of priorities. Many critics say that California should spend its cash on more pressing needs. Universities have been shortchanged for years while students have shouldered higher tuition and crushing loans; state pensions are underfunded; and courtrooms have been shuttered for lack of money. Others are angry that the tracks will cut through farmland. ….