Gavin Newsom has said more than once that he wants California’s high-speed rail project completed between the San Joaquin and Silicon valleys.
“It’s not a train to nowhere,” Newsom told George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times in October. “It’s insulting to suggest the Central Valley is nowhere. This is an economic development project, connecting the fastest growing and most dynamic economic regions in the country. That project is achievable and realistic.”
Two months later, after winning the gubernatorial election, Newsom visited Fresno.
“I’ve been a longtime supporter and I continue to support the Valley to Valley segment,” he told local leaders. “But I also think it’s time for a fresh start. It’s time to take a more sober, honest assessment of what it is and what it isn’t, and that’s what I intend to do. And, frankly, I’ve been critical of some of the financing plans over the past few years, but I hope to get it done but with a lot more transparency and a lot more accountability.”
However, campaign promises are easily forgotten. As are responses intended to keep local folks happy. This is the same politician, after all, who said in 2015 that if he became governor, he’d probably kill two of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature projects — high-speed rail and the Delta water tunnels.
Will the real Gov. Newsom please stand up?
I ask because longtime Newsom and Capitol watcher Dan Walters visited Fresno on Monday and told a room filled with Rotarians and their guests: “I have a hunch it is going to die. Newsom is not so enamored of the bullet train.”
Wrote Gabriel Dillard of The Business Journal: “There was a gasp in the room of Fresno community leaders … .”
I called Walters seeking the context of his remarks. He said that he expects only the first segment of high-speed rail to be completed, leaving the Valley with a souped-up version of Amtrak. But he put the odds of the line going from Bakersfield to the Bay Area as less than 50-50.
Tough Financial, Political Road Ahead
Newsom faces the same financing and political challenges that frustrated Brown.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority has burned through cash like sparklers on the Fourth of July. The latest construction estimate is $77 billion, and the project is years behind schedule. Counted-on private investment is nowhere in sight. Cap-and-trade funding is the project’s lifeline, and it isn’t nearly enough.
“I have a hunch it is going to die. Newsom is not so enamored of the bullet train.” — CALmatters columnist Dan Walters
Public finance watchdogs say don’t throw good money after bad. And Democrats who’ve long backed the project are now calling for a timeout. Some of them are concerned about the spiraling price tag. Others, such as Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, say the current plan isn’t what voters approved. In addition, he isn’t happy that it would be decades before the line connects to Southern California — if ever.
Bakersfield to Bay Area Link in 10 Years?
For those who don’t know, the rail authority’s latest plan envisions a Bay Area-to-Bakersfield segment completed by 2029. That is expected to cost between $29 billion and $37 billion — a lot more than what the authority has in the bank or can expect through cap-and-trade funding.
There is hope that President Trump, who is always talking about investing in infrastructure, might send some federal cash. That’s a longshot given his aversion to all things California.
Beyond that, there’s the 2020 election. If the Democrats win the White House and the Senate and keep the House, HSR supporters might sing “Happy Days are Here Again.”
There’s even talk of putting another rail bond on the ballot or a tax — neither of which, in my opinion, will fly.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” says Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, who has always had doubts about HSR’s business plan. “But we’re too far into it, I think, for the state just to walk away.”
Economic Stimulus for the San Joaquin Valley
Brand, like many local leaders, knows the project’s importance to Fresno’s future. Connecting the Valley to the Bay Area, the mayor says, “is an economic game-changer.”
Lee Ann Eager already knows, perhaps better than anyone, the project’s value to the Valley.
“We’re looking at an economic impact of $20 billion in Fresno, Merced, Madera, and Kings counties. And that’s before the train is even up and running or before we add new industries because of being able to go from the Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley in an hour.” — Lee Ann Eager, president/CEO of the Fresno Economic Development Corp.
“We’re looking at an economic impact of $20 billion in Fresno, Merced, Madera, and Kings counties,” says the president/CEO of the Fresno Economic Development Corp. “And that’s before the train is even up and running or before we add new industries because of being able to go from the Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley in an hour.”
All good points. The question is, how strong is Newsom’s resolve to finish what Brown started and failed to keep a close eye on?
Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau shared what he learned at a recent meeting of the Fresno County Transportation Authority.
“Our consultant told us that high-speed rail doesn’t look like a major priority to Newsom. He said it doesn’t seem like the governor is energized to commit dollars.”
Newsom’s State of the State Address
On Tuesday, Newsom will deliver his first State of the State address in Sacramento. We know he’ll talk a lot about healthcare, housing, education, and immigration.
Many people here in the Valley also want to hear his plan for high-speed rail.
If he is silent, that could be a sign that Walters is right.
Or merely an indication that Newsom, like everyone else, hasn’t yet figured out where the project is really headed.