What’s the fastest way to reimagine California’s geography? Connect Palmdale and Victorville.
These two working-class desert cities aren’t considered powerful economically or politically. But building world-class infrastructure to bridge the 50 miles between them might be the most powerful current idea in California. Strong Palmdale-Victorville connections could transform Southern California’s economy, boost energy markets, and reconfigure the path of North American trade. It might even save the California high-speed rail project.
Why would such a connection be so valuable? To bridge Palmdale and Victorville is to connect the Antelope and Victor valleys, two fast-growing exurban regions that each are tied to one of the continent’s most important highways. The Antelope Valley in L.A. County, which includes Palmdale, has more than 500,000 people.
Its highways make it part of the Interstate 5 corridor, from Tijuana to British Columbia. Fifty miles east, the Victor Valley has 400,000 people, and sits on Interstate 15, the route to Las Vegas and part of the path for transporting goods between San Diego and Canada.
Current connections between Interstates 5 and 15 are primitive. Truckers have to navigate the awful traffic of the L.A. basin, or find a way across the High Desert. The latter requires driving surface streets, or the traffic-clogged 138, known unofficially as Blood Alley, since it’s one of America’s most dangerous roads.
Good news: This infrastructure gap creates an enormous opportunity.
Which brings me to the High Desert Corridor, a decade-old proposal that is one of California’s most underrated ideas. Backed by a joint powers authority of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, the High Desert Corridor is a public-private partnership to build not one connection between Palmdale and Victorville, but four.
First would come a 56-mile freeway connecting the two cities. Second, the High Desert Corridor would establish a high-speed rail right of way, to connect the California High-Speed Rail’s proposed station at Palmdale with the planned, private Xpress West high-speed rail project between Las Vegas and Victorville.
The third piece of the connection involves energy: Underneath the freeway and rail would run transmission lines, and above ground there would be charging and alternative fuel stations for cars and trucks. Finally, the High Desert Corridor would have a 40-mile bikeway between Palmdale and U.S. 395.
The impact would go beyond the convenience of connecting the 5 and the 15. The high-speed rail piece of the High Desert Corridor would link San Francisco and Los Angeles to Las Vegas, inspiring more high-speed rail and economic integration in the West (Phoenix and Salt Lake City should be next).
It also would speed international trade that is slowed by L.A. traffic, both in the seaports and on the streets. The corridor could become a new “inland international port,” with logistics facilities, rail, and local airports tied close together to move cargo. Such a port would allow the logistics industry to expand beyond the L.A. basin, bringing more jobs to the desert for local residents.
The project also could take traffic off of Los Angeles’ roads, while providing infrastructure to encourage more green technology and transportation.
Be skeptical if you must. The history of the California desert is filled with grand plans that went nowhere. But the High Desert Corridor isn’t grand—it’s a tightly focused connection. The environmental reviews are complete; the next step is figuring out the exact route.
Current estimates of the project’s overall cost are $8 billion. That’s a lot, but just one-ninth the cost of high-speed rail. The project will require a mix of private and public money, and be built in phases (rail first).
Since Congressional earmarks aren’t available, the state should step up. Northern California has gotten more than its share of infrastructure money, including big funds for the new Bay Bridge. The next great California bridge should be built in the High Desert.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, firstname.lastname@example.org