Ben Boychuk

Gov. Newsom’s decision to change high-speed rail plan doesn’t go far enough

Full replay: Here’s Gov. Gavin Newsom and the State of the State address

Governor Gavin Newsom delivers his first State of the State address before a joint session of the California Legislature on Tuesday, February 12, 2019.
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Governor Gavin Newsom delivers his first State of the State address before a joint session of the California Legislature on Tuesday, February 12, 2019.

Gov. Gavin Newsom used his State of the State address on Tuesday to lambaste President Donald Trump. No surprise there. California is now the “State of Resistance” and our new governor aims to be the Resister-in-Chief.

Trump makes a good foil for opportunistic politicians, and Newsom couldn’t help but rail against the president’s immigration policies.

But the more interesting part of the speech involved a rail of another variety. It appears, at long last, the dream of a high-speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco is over. About time.

Newsom hinted during last year’s campaign that he was less enthusiastic about high-speed rail than Gov. Jerry Brown, who at times seemed to stake his reputation on the train’s success. On Tuesday, Newsom officially derailed Brown’s legacy.

“I have nothing but respect for Governor Brown’s and Governor Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision,” Newsom said. “And there’s no doubt that our state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation.”

”But” – you knew there had to be a “but” – “let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long ... Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”

Newsom’s solution is to develop a high-speed route between Merced and Bakersfield, which seems like an odd choice. The governor tried to preempt the argument that a 120-mile line across the Central Valley would be a “train to nowhere,” a claim he called “wrong and offensive.”

“It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley,” he said.

Well, at the risk of giving offense, that isn’t what Californians voted for.

Voters in 2008 passed Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure that made some specific promises: A high-speed train, whisking passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, beginning in 2022, at a cost of roughly $33 billion.

Not one of those promises had a prayer of being kept. Ever.

For a start, the timeline and budget parameters were ridiculous. You practically can’t get a cup of coffee at Caltrans in less than six months or without an environmental impact study.

But if rhetorical hyperbole doesn’t suit you, remember that road planners in 1996 announced the project to replace the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge would require seven years and cost around $1 billion. In the end, the job took 17 years and cost $6.4 billion. You had to be dreaming or high to believe the state could form a competent new bureaucracy, plan, buy right-of-way and construct hundreds of miles of track in 14 years and on budget.

In fact, the promised $33 billion price tag was discarded almost immediately. When Brown returned to the governor’s office in 2010, the incompetent California High-Speed Rail Authority said the project would cost closer to $100 billion. Given the scope of work, the number made sense. It was also politically insane.

Brown, being no dummy, ordered revisions to the plan. In due course, CHSRA returned with a new phony-baloney number: $68 billion, give or take, with the first phase completed sometime in 2033.

Some people – “naysayers,” they were called – had the temerity to point out that $68 billion and a 2033 completion date weren’t what Californians voter for, either. They also rudely noted that, apart from $3.5 billion in federal funds, none of the remaining billions had materialized from ballyhooed “private” sources.

Hadn’t the train’s boosters promised that taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook? Another rude question.

And here’s one more: Democrats these past two weeks have been drooling over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” which proposes a radical transformation of the U.S. economy in the next 12 years, with high-speed rail playing a central role. If California can’t pull off the idea, what makes anyone think the federal government can?

It’s vanity, which may be why Newsom, during his speech, said he’s “not interested” in sending that $3.5 billion “back to Donald Trump.” After all, Trump might want to spend it on the wall! At least a Central Valley line would help the state save face (sort of) while sticking it to the president.

Newsom’s office has backpedaled a bit on the governor’s statements from Tuesday, but he was right the first time. California’s high-speed rail costs too much, will take too long and very likely won’t live up to its utopian promise.

Truth is, that was always going to be the case. Californians voted for a fantasy, as Californians are wont to do. Reality is expensive. Let’s cancel this boondoggle and move on.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (www.amgreatness.com). Reach him at ben@amgreatness.comor on Twitter @benboychuk.
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