Big Valley

No, Gov. Gavin Newsom didn’t kill high-speed rail. But what’s his Plan B?

It’s been a dream for years in California’s sprawling Central Valley. Sleek bullet trains would race workers to and from booming Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, bridging the economic and cultural gap between urban and rural California.

Last week, with the words “let’s get real,” Gov. Gavin Newsom canceled that dream for now - and perhaps forever.

In his first State of the State speech, Newsom said what many have long thought: The state’s high-speed rail project, which has ballooned in price from $45 billion to $77 billion, is out of control and needs trimming. The governor later added the project otherwise would run out of money with nothing to show for it except “angst, frustration and finger-pointing.”

Instead of trying to link to the Bay Area, Newsom said he will focus on finishing the line currently under construction that will run 171 miles through the Valley from Merced to Bakersfield. He said it could open by 2027.

His plan, misconstrued by some initially as a complete abandonment of a two-decade effort, created shock waves, notably among Valley leaders who had been counting on high-speed rail as a conduit for economic development, including tech satellite offices near stations in Merced, Madera, Fresno and elsewhere.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been using as a carrot for a long time,” said Lee Ann Eager, head of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “Not just for Silicon Valley firms to expand here, but for people around the world to come here because they can get to Silicon Valley quickly.”

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, whose city has been torn up by rail line construction, hosted a meeting Wednesday with Newsom and the mayors of Merced and Bakersfield. He echoed Eager’s concern.

“This will do no good if it’s only from Bakersfield to Merced,” he said. “The connection to Silicon Valley and San Francisco benefits the entire Valley.”

Newsom contended he has not given up on a bigger high-speed rail system. The state intends to finish environmental studies for connector routes to L.A. and the Bay Area, and 220-mph bullet trains may one day reach the state’s coastal urban centers. But he steered clear of saying how and when those links might happen. He suggested in one conversation with reporters that a future route from Bakersfield to Los Angeles would, in fact, have to be completed with the help of federal and private money.

“We finish the environmental work, we continue to advocate for more federal dollars and private sector dollars, of which I think are more likely to come to California when we demonstrate that we can actually deliver on something,” he said. “That’s why I want to take all the unallocated money and focus it, with intensity, with transparency, with increased level of scrutiny to get something done in a part of the state that desperately needs investment.”

In the days since Newsom’s initial announcement, he and administration representatives have spoken privately with Valley leaders, explaining his commitment to the Central Valley and his belief that a successful bullet train within the region will be an economic boon to hard-pressed areas.

Administration officials point out Newsom’s plan expands the high-speed rail line by about 50 miles in the Valley. Under his revised concept, trains will run into downtown Bakersfield, rather than stopping outside the city. And Newsom plans to extend the line farther north to Merced, instead of the previous Valley terminus at Madera.

High-speed rail

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to continue construction of HSR between Merced and Bakersfield. Environmental reviews will continue on future sections from the Central Valley to the Bay Area and Bakersfield to Anaheim.

High speed rail map
Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority

It’s uncertain, though, whether Newsom’s change of gears will tamp down growing criticism of the system. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll last year showed that 64 percent of Valley residents want the bullet train halted in its tracks. Statewide, 49 percent want to pull the plug.

His initial announcement prompted President Donald Trump and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican representative from Kern and Tulare counties, to announce the project’s death. Trump tweeted that California had canceled the bullet train. He called the train a “disaster,” and demanded the state return several billion dollars in federal money for the project. Newsom dismissed the president’s tweet as “fake news.”

While Trump’s tweet may have been political gamesmanship, high-speed proponents and opponents alike said Newsom’s initial comments left them uncertain about how committed the governor is to a full statewide high-speed rail system. A longtime critic of the bullet train business plan, Elizabeth Alexis of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, called Newsom’s concept “a glass half full” approach and said a full system will only happen if “money falls from the sky.”

Newsom’s plan also calls into question the status of federal and state funding that has been allocated for the project.

Several Assembly Republicans sent Newsom a letter demanding data – including ridership and revenue assumptions - to determine whether a Bakersfield to Merced line is legal under the terms of California’s 2009 voter-approved $9.95 billion Proposition 1A bonds. Prop. 1A says the system’s operational budget must be self-supporting.

“Before we spend billions of additional bond funds and cap-and-trade revenues on this project, we must be assured that the segment you are proposing is both legal and useful,” the authors wrote under the rubric of San Diego-area Assemblywoman Marie Waldron.

Brian Annis, head of the California State Transportation Agency, which oversees the High Speed Rail Authority, said a new report is in the works, to be delivered this spring, on the financial details of the Bakersfield to Merced line.

Although Newsom articulated the new bullet train plan, the idea of downsizing the first segment didn’t start with him.

Even as his predecessor, Jerry Brown, pushed to launch an opening segment from Bakersfield to downtown San Jose, Brown administration officials were saying a Valley-only train may be all they could afford for starters. Brian Kelly, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told The Bee last summer that consultants were exploring whether an abbreviated segment between Bakersfield and Madera or Merced could generate enough ridership and revenue to meet the no-subsidy requirements of Proposition 1A.

“We’re doing further analysis about where we start those pieces and get trains on the ground as soon as possible,” Kelly said. “I’m very eager to put the assets we’re building into use and not let them just sit there.”

If such ridership and revenue studies – which have yet to be presented to the rail authority’s board of directors – bore positive fruit, Kelly’s idea was to have high-speed trains running in the Valley while the state tries to figure out how, financially and technically, to tunnel through Pacheco Pass and connect the Valley segment to the San Francisco Peninsula.

Merced Assemblyman Adam Gray, a Democrat, defended the starter line concept and commended Newsom for being a former big city mayor who seems to value and support the Valley. With 4.5 million residents and several major universities, the San Joaquin Valley “is not nowhere,” Gray said.

Gray pointed out that a high-speed rail line terminating in Merced likely will provide Valley residents a rail connection to San Jose and the Bay Area. The existing Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) system, which carries thousands daily from the San Joaquin Valley to Silicon Valley, has funding to extend south to Merced by 2026. ACE officials say they would connect with Newsom’s proposed northern bullet-train terminus.

State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, a Democrat from Stockton who wrote Proposition 1A, said legislators “always envisioned that high-speed rail would be built incrementally,” and that it would connect passengers to regional rail services such as ACE and Caltrain, the commuter rail on the San Francisco Peninsula.

“So you could ride high-speed rail, get off and then get on another, slower regional rail train, but there’s connectivity” to get north from Bakersfield to San Francisco, she said.

The Merced hub would include connections to Amtrak’s San Joaquin regional passenger service that goes to Oakland and Sacramento. “We will have a three-legged stool,” she said. “I think of it as a hybrid of high-speed rail connected with regional rail. That’s a way to bring down the costs.”

The full high-speed rail plan is to connect first to Caltrain in San Jose and run trains to Los Angeles. If those lines are ever built, and if they manage to make money, the plan would be to use those revenues to extend the bullet trains to Sacramento and San Diego.

Sacramento Bee reporter Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.