When I left the frigid cold of Philadelphia to fly to relatively balmy Fresno, California for my research trip on public opinion formation and the California High Speed Rail Project, I was pretty anxious. My primary fear was that no one would want to talk to me about some infrastructure project with an almost unfathomable opening date: 2029. I was mentally preparing myself for cold shoulders and awkward social encounters. I didn’t want to come home empty handed.
Because of a delay, I had 6 extra hours at LAX to think about these concerns while I waited for my 35-minute commuter flight to Fresno. “What if someone tells me to piss off?” I thought, “What if no one talks to me about this project? What if no one knows about the California High Speed Rail project?”
From the moment I got on the plane heading to Fresno, my concerns largely melted away. I sat next to a man with some neurological issue that made it difficult for him to speak. Despite this speech hindrance, he talked to me for the entire flight into Fresno about how he’s a 4th generation resident of the Central Valley and how he doesn’t understand why the project is worth the money. “San Francisco has a great transportation system. Los Angeles has a terrible transportation system. Why not spend all that money helping better the transportation system in the city’s biggest state?”
During my time in Fresno, all I’ve had to do is mention the California HSR project in public and people approach me with their opinions. There is near universal agreement among interviewees: opinion on the California HSR project is extremely polarized. People either love it or hate it. People I’ve talked to who love the project tend to mention the potential economic benefit and environmental concerns (the air quality here is some of the worst in the nation…there is visible smog and I have been coughing). Those opposed to the project tend to mention concerns about the budget of the project and apprehensions about the viability of the project. Land rights and government intrusion are also themes I’ve found in those who are opposed.
For my first lunch in Fresno, I went to a local restaurant recommended by a pediatric nurse I interviewed. Within 15 minutes I was holding what seemed like a round table of mostly senior citizens in the restaurant. Over California avocado Kobe burgers, we discussed why people think what they think about the project. One woman, who identified herself as a Fresno-based artist, described to me how there are two Fresno’s (this has been mentioned to me repeatedly). There is a Fresno north of Shaw Avenue (affluent) and a Fresno to the south of Shaw (extremely poor). Supporters of the California HSR project have told me that many of the powerful elites north of Shaw avenue have drowned out support for the project in less affluent areas (One notable exception are residents south of Shaw who will be displaced by the construction of the project, such as in Chinatown). This artist supports the project because it will help Fresno develop economically in the long run (she gave many other reasons, but this seemed to be the primary reason).
One gentleman at a downtown Fresno coffee shop/bar mentioned to me that concern for the environment is huge. “Our air quality is terrible and there isn’t enough investment in Fresno – why not build the railroad?” This is an argument the state has made repeatedly, for the high speed trains would be electrified and are to be powered by renewable energy.
One Hispanic man in the construction industry told me, “There are no jobs in Fresno. It’s desperately poor. We’re putting so much money into this. I worry that we’re not going to get anything out of it.” He emphasized that he worries that the unemployed people in Fresno won’t be hired to complete the work. “I hope I’m wrong” he said. “I also want to mention our bus system – FAX – If they can’t even get our bus system right, how are they going to get a huge railroad right?”
One seemingly universal theme here is concern about the economy. A number of respondents told me that there is a collective sense that “there are no jobs.” Driving around Fresno, one can see the terrible poverty. On my first day in Fresno, I lost count of how many homeless people I saw. Boarded up businesses and homes litter downtown Fresno. On my trip to a demolished Del Monte fruit-processing factory that is now owned by the state of California and will become part of the high-speed rail system, I noticed how many abandoned buildings lie along the path of the future 220-mph train. Some of the areas the train would run through resemble desolate parts of North Philadelphia.
I stopped at one home in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood hoping that someone in the household would take my survey in Spanish. The family was holding a yard sale, or more accurately, they were selling everything and anything I would look at. In an effort to build trust (this has been an issue with Hispanic people I have encountered – there is an air of distrust when I randomly approach a group of Spanish speakers because of the fact that I cannot fully explain myself in Spanish), I asked how much for a really nice jacket that would retail at any REI for 30 dollars. Tres dólares was the response. I offered the Spanish version of my survey, which was promptly denied.
I moved on to a gas station in a predominantly Hispanic section of Fresno (Fresno is very nearly a majority minority community). I pulled up to what looked like a group of farm hands waiting for a bus. I handed out copies of my Spanish survey. No one filled one out. I’ve talked to locals about my issue of lack of Hispanic response, to which one older white lady from the liberal artsy Tower District of Fresno responded, “Many Hispanics are migrants – They commute from the border to work the fields and then return home.” While the California HSR project might not be on the radar of this population, I hope to work over the next week on getting more Spanish-speaking respondents.
One common theme particularly interesting for my thesis about how people form their opinions is the fairly universal response of “I get the majority of my information from local news sources,” such as The Fresno Bee and the local NBC/CBS/ABC/FOX affiliates. The Fresno Bee editorial board has largely endorsed the California HSR project, but there have been numerous columnists and letters to the editor decrying the project.
I’ve asked everyone and anyone about the project. I’ve driven around various neighborhoods, spoken with both homeless people and people living in million dollar homes. I’ve interviewed street vendors, waitresses, doctors and lawyers all alike. I’ve found that there are certain techniques that have yielded the best results. I have not been recording our conversations, because I have found that makes people very nervous. I have also found that being too forceful with my “Could you talk to me for a few minutes” or “Take my survey” makes people nervous. Fresno is not a particularly safe town. Locals have repeatedly told me to “be extremely careful,” especially toward Downtown and more southern sections of the city. I’ve been working very hard to balance my desire to get good responses to my project and my desire to remain safe.
Tomorrow morning (Monday morning), I will travel by Amtrak to Sacramento (I have a rental car, but it’s actually cheaper and easier to take the train…plus I’m not in California to study highways). I have an interview with the Governor’s office/High Speed Rail authority about how they perceive the public opinion surrounding the HSR project and what they’ve done to try to influence public opinion (I’m speaking with the Chief Information Officer). I couldn’t be more excited about my meeting with the Authority. I’m hoping to find that my conversation with the government officials will shed some light on the things average citizens have been saying.
While in Sacramento, I will also be attending the state’s public hearing on the first section of rail construction. I’ve been told various opposing and supporting citizens groups will be in attendance. I very much look forward to talking to them.
Next week I will be traveling out into the countryside surrounding the Fresno metropolitan area to meet with the economic lifeblood of this region: big agriculture. Farmers are reportedly some of the most passionate opponents to the project. I look forward to hearing about why they think what they think about this the $70 billion project that could soon become a reality in Fresno.