California has begun work on the largest infrastructure project underway in the country. Eventually, a high-speed train will connect San Francisco with Los Angeles at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour. The rail project is estimated to cost $68 billion. Some cities in the path of the proposed route hate the rail project, but not Palmdale.
About 60 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Palmdale is a hot desert city of about 150,000 people. In vacant dirt lots, Joshua trees tilt like cactus scarecrows. The high-speed rail project could be this city's gravy train. The Palmdale train station is currently just a one-room operation. It has a few benches, where passengers can wait for either the bus or a commuter train.
"It's not going to look nothing like this," Rich Poston says. "It's going to be totally different. There's going to be a 10-track station."
Poston does architectural design and owns three companies that may get a piece of the work on the high-speed rail project. "We would be happy with getting a half-million-dollar contract," he says. "And then, remember that once we do that here, there are 22 stations. So we can duplicate that and go to other areas and bid on those stations as well."
High-speed rail represents a big opportunity for small, minority-owned firms like Poston's, because about 30 percent of the work is supposed to go to them. So large, bonded companies want to partner with qualified minority-owned small businesses.
"If they don't get the minority participation, they can't win the bid," says Poston, who is a member of the local African-American chamber of commerce. "They're looking for us in the daytime with a flashlight."
He says this is a rich opportunity for workers with the right skills. "For the electrician? I would say it's at least $46 or $50 an hour. Now, to me, that's a mortgage-paying job."
High-speed rail would also improve the lives of Palmdale commuters. A commuter train takes about two hours to get to Los Angeles. The bullet train could cut that time to 20 minutes.
Sammy Hults lives in Palmdale and travels for work. "It would allow me to look for work in more different major cities," he says. "And having this rail, it'd be really easy to get there because travel time is really short."
Shorter travel times could also have a big impact on real estate. Palmdale has traditionally been an outpost for people who can't afford to buy property in Los Angeles.
"It's really affordable still, and that's one of the reasons that a lot of people move into the area," says Marco Henriquez, who owns Amigo Real Estate. "You can have a house and pay a lot less. Most of the times, half what you pay in the L.A. area."
He shows me a three-bedroom, two-bath house on the east side of town. The 1,400-square-foot house was built in 1985. It was recently painted and has new carpet. Henriquez calls it a typical starter home. The price tag: $190,000.
After the rail project is completed, living here and commuting to Los Angeles for work starts to sound a lot more do-able. And, as demand increases, Henriquez expects prices could rise 20 to 25 percent.
"I mean, you'll basically make more money," Henriquez says. "The price of the property will go up."
Other business could also benefit from shortened commute times.
Roxana Martinez owns Lucky Roxy's Café. She often doesn't see her regulars during the work-week because so much of their free time is eaten by the commute.
"By the time they get home, it's practically like 7:30, 8 o'clock," she says. "The kids are going to sleep, so they're not really going to go out and dine. So I think that, just having that station here, and reducing the commute, I see it as a benefit to us. I see more customers coming in."
Roxy's customers rave about the café's country gravy. And while it's too much to call high-speed rail her 'gravy train,' it will help her sell more gravy.