By JULIET WILLIAMS
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) â¿¿ Trucks loaded with tomatoes, milk and almonds clog the two main highways that bisect California's farm heartland, carrying goods to millions along the Pacific Coast and beyond. This dusty stretch of land is the starting point for one of the nation's most expensive public infrastructure projects: a $68 billion high-speed rail system that would span the state, linking the people of America's salad bowl to more jobs, opportunity and buyers.
Five years ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved the idea of bringing a bullet train to the nation's most populous state. It would be America's first high-speed rail system, sold to the public as a way to improve access to good-paying jobs, cut pollution from smog-filled roadways and reduce time wasted sitting in traffic while providing an alternative to high fuel prices.
Now, engineering work has finally begun on the first 30-mile segment of track here in Fresno, a city of a half-million people with high unemployment and a withering downtown core littered with abandoned factories and shuttered stores.
Rail is meant to help this place, with construction jobs now and improved access to economic opportunity once the job is complete. But the region that could benefit most from the project is also where opposition to it has grown most fierce.
"I just wish it would go away, this high-speed rail. I just wish it would go away," says Gary Lanfranco, whose restaurant in downtown Fresno is slated to be demolished to make way for rerouted traffic.
Such sentiments can be heard throughout the Central Valley, where roads are dotted with signs such as: "HERE COMES HIGH SPEED RAIL There goes the farm." Growers complain of misplaced priorities, and residents wonder if their tax money is being squandered.
Aaron Fukuda, a civil engineer whose house in the dairy town of Hanford lies directly in one of the possible train routes, says: "People are worn out, tired, frustrated."