Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks before Gov. Jerry Brown delivers the 2014 State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, at the state Capitol.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom would redirect high-speed rail funding

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 - 11:10 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 - 11:31 pm

Now leaving the station: Gavin Newsom’s support for high-speed rail.

Publicly breaking with Gov. Jerry Brown on a central piece of the governor’s agenda, Brown’s fellow Democrat said the money set aside for the bullet train should be spent elsewhere.

The lieutenant governor doesn’t typically align with Republicans. But during an appearance on a conservative radio program, Newsom embraced a position the GOP has championed in Sacramento: Reallocating voter-approved high-speed rail bond money toward other projects.

“I would take the dollars and redirect it to other, more pressing infrastructure needs,” Newsom said during an appearance on the Seattle-based Ben Shapiro Show on AM 770 KTTH.

That puts Newsom at odds with Brown, who has substantially lashed his legacy to the embattled project. The Brown administration recently asked the California Supreme Court to intervene in a legal dispute over the train’s funding plan. The high court sent the case to the Third District Court of Appeals, which on Friday agreed to conduct an expedited review.

A November ruling from Judge Michael P. Kenny ordered the state to rescind its funding blueprint. Kenny ruled that California’s plan failed to honor what voters approved in 2008, when they authorized bond money for the train via Proposition 1A. The appeals court has since stayed Kenny’s order.

In diverging from the governor’s position, Newsom similarly questioned the project’s financing. He said neither the federal government nor private investors have provided hoped-for levels of funding (Kenny’s ruling allows California to move ahead with spending $3.4 billion in federal money).

“I’m open to argument,” Newsom said. “I’m interested in evidence. I’m not an ideologue.”

Newsom’s stance reflects widespread public skepticism about the high-speed rail project. A 2011 Field Poll found nearly two-thirds of voters advocated another vote on a $9 billion bond issue for the project, with a clear majority saying they would vote down the funding measure voters had passed just three years prior.

“I think I’m where the public was and is,” Newsom said during his radio appearance.

“I am not the only Democrat that feels this way,” he added. “I gotta tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly. Most are now saying it privately.”

Over the last few years, Newsom’s public position on the bullet train has gradually shifted. In 2011, he pronounced himself “extraordinarily excited” about the undertaking.

“I personally have been supportive of the high-speed rail project since my time as mayor of the city and county of San Francisco,” Newsom said, going on to tout the project’s job-generating capacity and its role in moving goods and people around the state.

By 2013 he appeared distinctly less enthusiastic. During a talk at the Milken Institute Global Conference last May, Newsom said that “more and more legitimate questions are being raised” about the rail project.

“I think we have to be sober about this,” he added.

A spokesman for Brown could not be reached for comment on Friday. The high-speed rail authority issued a written statement from Chairman Dan Richard: “High-Speed Rail is forging ahead because voters backed a statewide rail modernization program that is creating jobs and will provide clean transportation for generations to come. Our local partners want tangible transportation improvements, such as the electrification of Caltrain in the Bay Area and upgrades to Metrolink in Southern California, to move forward.”

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White

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