Newsom Pulls Plug on LA-San Francisco Bullet Train in State of State Speech

California Gov. Gavin Newsom gives his first State of the State address at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Nick Cahill/CNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California Governor Gavin Newsom used his first State of the State address Tuesday to drop twin bombshells: He wants to dramatically downsize the $77 billion high-speed rail project and his predecessor’s dream of a pair of gigantic tunnels delivering water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Addressing the Legislature and state officers for the first time, Newsom used the 43-minute speech to say his fledgling administration is prepared to make “tough calls” on the beleaguered projects, two of the largest public works efforts ever undertaken by the Golden State.

“The tough calls we must make together on rail, water, and energy. How we protect migrants, care for seniors, and help the homeless, and how we will tackle the affordability crisis that is coming to define life in this state,” Newsom said.

Speaking from planned remarks, Newsom said the troubled – and voter-approved – high-speed rail project can’t continue as planned. The project, which over the last two decades has been plagued by cost overruns, lawsuits and other hiccups, is supposed to go from San Diego to Sacramento and Los Angeles to San Francisco. Newsom said the project has been botched and suffered “too many years of neglect” from bureaucrats and decision-makers.

“But let’s be real. The project as currently planned would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,” Newsom said.

By connecting just the Central Valley with high-speed rail, Newsom hopes to reinvigorate local economies in cities like Fresno, Merced and Bakersfield. He said the state’s most productive agricultural producing region “deserves better” and is “hungry for reinvestment.

“I know that some critics will say this is a ‘train to nowhere,’ but that’s wrong and offensive,” Newsom said of the major tweaks to the plan voters approved in 2008 at the behest of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “High-speed rail is much more than a train project. It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the valley.”

After promising more transparency over the project, Newsom told the crowd he’s appointing his economic director Lenny Mendoca to oversee management of the litigious project.

Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong, who represents part of the Central Valley and is a longstanding critic of the project, called Newsom’s announcement a “complete bait-and-switch on all Californians and Central Valley residents.”

As for the contentious California WaterFix – which has encountered many of the same hurdles as the high-speed rail project – Newsom has plans to slice former Gov. Jerry Brown’s project in half.

“I do not support the WaterFix as currently configured,” Newsom said of the estimated $17 billion water project to build two massive tunnels underneath the state’s most important estuary. “But we can build on the important work that’s already been done. That’s why I do support a single tunnel.”

Newsom’s announcement places the project, also called the Delta Tunnels, into further disarray. His new scheme would require new environmental reviews and could push the water agencies paying for the WaterFix off board.

Delta politicians and environmentalists welcomed Tuesday’s news and said they are holding out hope that Newsom will scrap the project entirely.

“I look forward to working with the governor to convince him there are alternative water delivery solutions that are economical and can be delivered in a timely manner, nullifying the need for even a single tunnel,” said Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay.

“We are grateful to Governor Newsom for listening to the people of the delta, and California, and putting an end to the boondoggle WaterFix, twin tunnels project,” said Restore the Delta executive director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla in a statement.

Along with proposing major changes to the massive water project, Newsom said he’s appointing Joaquin Esquivel as the new chair of the state water board, replacing current chair Felicia Marcus. Esquivel was appointed by Gov. Brown and has served on the water board since 2017.

Newsom also used the occasion to blast President Donald Trump on immigration for the second time in as many days. On Monday he announced the state will pull hundreds of its National Guard troops from the U.S.-Mexico border to focus on wildfire prevention and drug traffickers.

“This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism,” Newsom said Tuesday.

Newsom, 51, accused the president of fear mongering and compared Trump’s actions to similar scare tactics used by critics of same-sex marriage while Newsom was mayor of San Francisco 15 year ago.

“Now, just like back then, we must stand up for those maligned, marginalized and scapegoated,” Newsom said. 

In the six weeks since his inauguration, Newsom has introduced a “Marshall Plan” for boosting the state’s housing supply, asked the Legislature to expand guaranteed maternity leave, proposed $1.5 billion for early childhood schooling and offered cities a collective $500 million to combat homelessness.

Over the same span, the governor persuaded his attorney general to sue an Orange County beach city for ignoring state housing development rules.

While Newsom inherited a healthy economic scenario and a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature when he took over for Brown, he also inherited a mess at the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. He believes the utility didn’t “do enough to secure dangerous equipment” or go far enough on wildfire prevention, and promised to “seek justice for fire victims, fairness for employees, and protection for ratepayers.”

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