Newsom Vows New Direction for California Bullet Train

Construction continues on an elevated section of high-speed rail track near downtown Fresno, California. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – State and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been scrambling to interpret what California Governor Gavin Newsom meant when he announced plans to significantly scale back the state’s high-speed rail project.

During the Newsom’s State of the State speech Tuesday, which was in itself remarkable for how much news it generated on multiple fronts, the California Republican Party tweeted: “Billions of dollars have already been wasted on this project. Abandoning this project, which is billions over budget and years behind schedule and will never be built, will simply save the state from wasting billions more.”

Costs for the project have escalated due to the state’s acknowledged tendency to underrate everything from the difficulty in securing land, to keeping contractors in line and fighting litigation on several fronts.

The project has grown from $64 billion to $77 billion in the past couple years. For the Central Valley portion of the project alone, cost estimates have more than doubled from $4.5 billion to about $10.6 billion according to the latest business plan.

Such spikes led Newsom to use his first annual address on the state of the state to blast the project.

“The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,” he told lawmakers Tuesday.

While many in legislative circles as well as the news media interpreted Newsom’s words as abandoning plans for a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the governor himself followed up a series of tweets making clear he still believes in high-speed rail.

“We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for CA,” he tweeted. “We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will continue our regional projects north and south. Finish Phase 1 enviro work. Connect the Central Valley to other parts of the state.”

High-speed rail proponents like state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, sought to put a fine point on the remarks by saying the governor was simply trying to prioritize the completion of the Central Valley segment before proceeding with the rest of America’s largest infrastructure project.

“The press is inaccurately reporting that Governor Newsom is killing high-speed rail to Bay Area and Los Angeles,” Wiener said after the speech. “That’s not true. He said we must focus on completing Central Valley segment and then move forward from there.”

Wiener said the Bay Area and Los Angeles must be part of any future high-speed rail network.

Proponents agree.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority itself has long said that in order to carry enough riders to avoid costly government subsidies predicted by opponents, the train must connect California’s two largest metropolitan areas.

The plan has a constitutional mandate to take passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours, offering a low-hassle alternative to air travel.

Rail authority CEO Brian Kelly also expressed confidence in Newsom’s support, saying the governor “reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our ‘bookend’ investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion.”

Federal funding with President Donald Trump in office appears unlikely, although the president did say shortly after his election he was frustrated that other countries had high-speed trains while the United States did not. The comments stoked hope Trump would be willing to preside over major infrastructure projects, but those hopes have faded after the GOP’s legislative priorities of tax cuts and gutting President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation have taken precedence.

Republicans in Congress have long been hostile to the high-speed rail project. After Newsom’s speech, the House Republican Conference circulated an email with the subject line “Socialist fantasy gets a dose of reality.”

But Trump won’t be president forever, and Democrats have much ambition to replace him in 2020. If they succeed, California may be able to count on more federal support.

Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the young Democrat representing the Bronx who helped craft the Green New Deal, said the federal government needs to explore high-speed rail as part of its effort to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

The deal has been endorsed by all of the Democratic presidential candidates currently running against Trump in 2020.

Republicans steadfastly criticize the project as a boondoggle and point to Americans’ love affair with the automobile as a strike against the project, saying that even if the project is completed for what is now estimated to be $77 billion no one will ride it and taxpayers will foot the bill to operate it.

Proponents say the project can show the rest of the nation and the world that there is demand for rail travel in the United States outside of the Northeast – where Amtrak is popular – if the option is available.

Perhaps Newsom was hinting at this when he said high-speed rail had the potential to be transformational.

“This is so much more than a train project,” the governor tweeted after his speech. “It’s a transformation project. Anchored by high-speed rail, we can align our economic, workforce, and transportation strategies to revitalize communities across our state.”

Whether the political will to see that transformation through, as budgets increase and construction timelines evaporate, remains to be seen.

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