The average commute in the Central Valley is just around 20 minutes. Now think of a long commute. Now longer. And longer. How about 6 times longer. That is what thousands of workers in the northern end of the valley are doing every day.
They are the target of high-speed rail advocates who think they can convince these mega-commuters to abandon their cars and move to Fresno or Merced to ride the train. But why are these workers making such a long commute in the first place? Reporter Jeffrey Hess shadowed one to experience the trip and ask that very question.
James Bostick is a salesman that works primarily in the Bay Area but lives nearly two hours away ‘Over the Hill’ in Los Banos.
Even at this early hour, there is an unbroken string of cars heading west on Highway 152 to make it in time for shifts that, for most, won’t even start until 8.
“You can see this line of people starting. This is all going over. That gas station, as you can see right now, that is people just piling in there. And that place is just packed,” Bostick points out one of the last stations before the drive.
The commute, fortunately, is fairly smooth on this day. I had brought snacks and extra bottled water because there are few, in any places to stop. And if even one car gets in a wreck or breaks down a two-hour commute suddenly becomes a four-hour slog.
James has been making this drive for more than 12 years.
There is a reason he prays before every drive. He alludes to the fact that he has seen wrecks, maybe even fatal crashes, and won’t even say the word ‘accident’ as we drive instead saying “the A word”.
“Because there are so many lunatics that either A: wake up late or B: think they are invincible. There isn’t a day that goes by where you don’t see these people,” Bostick says.
There is even a Facebook group dedicated to people who make the drive sharing news about traffic conditions or stories about their commute.
“As you can see, it’s a nice steady stream of lights all behind us. And I am doing 65 and I am getting passed,” Bostick adds.
The Bay Area has by far the most expensive housing prices in the country which is forcing thousands of middle-income workers into more affordable areas like Los Banos. Homes there are about a quarter the price. For many, the lower home price makes it the drive worth it.
As we cross into the Bay Area, James points up and new construction springing up and says he briefly considered moving his family of five closer to work but that the price is just too steep….
“See how it’s three high and how congested it is right here? These are condos and apartments. (and what would be the going rate on these?) Those would be about $700,000 each. Now selling” Bostick says.
And that’s for a two bedroom that would still be an hour commute from his home.
As we are riding in his new car, the old one he recently traded in had over 800,000 miles on it, James is hard at work his blue-tooth phone ringing almost non-stop.
*ring* “This is James. Hello? (caller: hi can you hear me?) Yeah, I can hear you! (caller: ok)”
James is the type of worker that high-speed rail advocates envision trading the grueling drive for a ride on the train that takes half the time. Factor in wear and tear on the car, gas, and other factors and they say the economics could work out to make Fresno and Merced more attractive than the car-based commuter towns now booming.
But what has been the impact of all those commuters on those towns?
Teresa Bartholomew, a real estate agent in Los Banos, told me the influx of workers has been great. Housing and construction are back on track after a brutal decline in the Great Recession, and money is pouring in.
“There is approximately maybe four new subdivision in town and they are selling quite rapidly and prices are going up,” Bartholomew says.
But not everyone agrees that turning the tiny town into a commuter hub has been great. Some residents malign the sprawl and the fact that property taxes are barely enough to cover the cost of city services in the new growth.
Vanessa Lovato, a Los Banos native, feels the town itself has not benefited, pointing to its nearly 12% unemployment rate, which is double the state average.
“I really hope that Los Banos starts going in a positive direction again. I really hope that other communities will learn ‘if you are going to build houses, at least build jobs’. We are not asking for much. We are not asking for the world. We are just asking for employment,” Lovato says.
A local shop owner I talked to says she has trouble convincing commuters to visit her downtown shop rather than spending money in the Bay Area. And teachers expressed concern that too many kids are now latchkey kids due to their parent’s long commutes. And all those cars have added to congestion and air pollution.
Our Los Banos commuter James himself is very skeptical of the train and doubts he would ride it. He thinks most commuters have just accepted this as their way of life now. The travel time on this way was over 12 hours.
“Because it is just a part of your life now. You know what you are up against. I’ll put a lot of music on. I listen to a lot of music. Calls come in all the time and I have to take them. The commute doesn’t bother me. Period,”
And that is a big existential challenge facing high-speed rail advocates. Replacing California’s deeply entrenched car culture with one that encourages public transportation. That is a $68 billion dollar gamble.