Capitol Alert

Antonio Villaraigosa rips Gavin Newsom over high-speed rail

Antonio Villaraigosa, stopping off Wednesday in the Central Valley to survey construction of the state’s oft-debated high speed rail system, accused Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom of repeatedly equivocating on the project, criticizing his Democratic rival for governor of being “for it, before he’s against it, and then he’s for it again.”

The former Los Angeles mayor suggested Newsom, the frontrunner in next year’s contest, was revising his positions “when the winds blow in his direction.”

Newsom was an early backer of the rail project, and he campaigned for the $9.95 billion bond measure in 2008. But his opinion soured over route and business plan deviations. Newsom told a Seattle radio program in 2014 that he would use the money for “other, more pressing infrastructure needs.”

Campaigning for governor, he now says he would work to identify more funding, specifically private investment, yet he still worries about the viability of the $64 billion project considered one of the signature infrastructure efforts of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Villaraigosa said Newsom’s shifting rail statements illustrate a broader approach to campaigning.

“When you look at the way he speaks to different audiences and says different things, again and again, I think you have to look at his support with a grain of salt,” he said midway through a tour of rail construction sites in Fresno, accompanied by Dan Richard, the chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Newsom’s campaign dismissed the critique, offering that he’s consistently expressed doubts about the project’s ability to attract private dollars, particularly after its route, originally pitched to bond voters as focusing on Los Angeles to San Francisco, was replaced with an initial 32-mile segment under construction between Fresno and Madera counties.

Newsom spokesman Dan Newman said Villaraigosa’s charges are “particularly ludicrous considering the source.”

He ripped Villaraigosa for attending a chamber of commerce political function in Fresno and pointed to his past support for a non-partisan effort, the Campaign to Fix the Debt, which proposed various changes to entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

“He used to be a Democratic labor organizer, and today he’s literally raising money to support Republicans,” Newman said. “That’s Guinness Book of Records flip floppery.”

Newsom is not the only one worried about future funding, particularly given the persistent opposition of Republicans who control federal spending.

On Tuesday, the project’s governing board approved about $50 million in contract amendments to address unanticipated construction and environmental review costs, leading some members to voice fears about possibly damaging the rail’s public image.

A new poll out of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Government Studies found the rail project, which is generating more than 1,000 direct jobs in the Central Valley, as low on the list of voters’ concerns. Fewer than one in five ranked the high-speed rail project as a top priority in their selection for governor in 2018, with the issue registering last on a list of 20 where jobs and the economy, health care, immigration and state spending lead the way.

But Villaraigosa, who has been visiting farms, processing plants and business groups throughout the Valley, said the rail project will help propel the state “into the 21st century.”

“California’s investment in high-speed rail is an opportunity to connect the two economic powerhouses of the state with a part of the state that needs to diversify its economy, that has affordable housing, he said.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago