Newsom Says High-Speed Rail Serving the Central Valley Is Not a “Train to Nowhere”

But he did NOT say he was abandoning the entire project

Then-Mayor and long-time HSR supporter Gavin Newsom on a photo-op with his wife and François Lacôte of the French TGV system during a trip to France. Photo: SF Mayor's office
Then-Mayor and long-time HSR supporter Gavin Newsom on a photo-op with his wife and François Lacôte of the French TGV system during a trip to France. Photo: SF Mayor's office

In his first State of the State speech this morning, Governor Gavin Newsom said he wanted to “get real” about the California High-Speed Rail Program.

“Let’s level about high-speed rail,” he said. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

But, he reiterated, that does not mean it is time to end it. To those critics who say California should stop building it, he said, “Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it.”

“And by the way,” he added, “I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding back to Donald Trump. Because that’s what it would take.”

Even though there is currently no clear path for high-speed rail to connect Sacramento and San Diego, “let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” he said. “We do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”

Several news outlets have already interpreted his remarks to mean he wants to scale the project back to just the Central Valley, where construction has already begun and there are clear plans to complete the first segment. But that’s not what he said. He pledged to finish the environmental work on Phase 1 of the program–which would connect San Francisco to Anaheim–and continue to pursue federal funding to complete the entire project.

Newsom clapped back at critics who call a Central Valley project a “train to nowhere.” “I think that’s wrong, and I think that’s offensive,” he said. “The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America, as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better.”

The cities of the Central Valley are, he said “more dynamic than many realize.” The region is renowned for agriculture, but is also “hungry for investment, a workforce eager for more training and good jobs…. who deserve a fair share of our state’s prosperity.”

“High-speed rail is more than a train project,” he said. As a tool for economic transformation, it could help “unlock the economic potential” and create the “backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley.”

Meanwhile, he plans to make immediate governance changes. “We’re going to hold contractors and consultants accountable to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent – including change orders, cost overruns, even travel expenses. It’s going online, for everybody to see,” he said, calling it a “new day” for the program.

And he announced his pick for new chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority: Lenny Mendonca, who was recently appointed the governor’s economic development director.

The High-Speed Rail Program is a very big infrastructure project, and while critics are quick to point out that funding is not lined up to complete the entire statewide project, that was never the plan. Breaking it up into separate pieces, getting it started by doing what could be done most easily, and pursuing funding for each separate piece was part of the original vision for the project–even when California voters passed Prop 1A to get the project started.

Finishing the Central Valley portion would, as Newsom points out, bring huge benefits to state residents. And it would make the rest of the project–the trickier parts–a lot more likely to happen.

74 thoughts on Newsom Says High-Speed Rail Serving the Central Valley Is Not a “Train to Nowhere”

  1. It shows a serious systemic flaw, that a single individual has so much power. Something like that is not “democracy”. Period.

  2. In world standards, that counts as “basic passenger rail in non-mountaineous and non-urban terrain.

  3. Doesn’t even matter that much. I asked for building new highways (or extending lanes etc.). And obviously, that is not cheap either, but nobody complains, aparently.

  4. Hair Gel Gav had Republicans and NIMBYs smiling ear-to-ear yesterday. Don’t believe his lame PR spin about continuing it in the future when everything’s even more expensive and difficult to build. I admire his can’t-do attitude and am surprised more people aren’t calling him on the giveaway to the politically connected elite of Palo Alto and Atherton. If he were alive in the ’30s, there would be no Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge. If he were alive in the ’60s, there would be no state freeway system.

  5. Can we now tap Tesla to design and build a battery electric train that can run on cahsr tracks with pantagraph at 200mph AND opperate on battery power along the ACE route to San Jose as well as running north to Sacramento along Amtracks route.

  6. Actually, Newsom had one job and that was to kill CAHSR. That was yesterday’s big project. He wants health insurance for all. That’s today’s big project. Get with the program.

  7. I didn’t sat SF and LA, but SF through LA. Not all of the state, sure, but a good portion of it.

  8. Let me rephrase my point. What percent of the St. Louis to Chicago line upgrade to 110mph was funded by federal government? (You can use Google to look that up)

    How does that percentage compare to California rail project?

  9. You have to hand it to Newsom, he had one job to support CAHSR and he can barely do that. All he had to do was say he’d support the project and leave it at that, instead he didn’t copy edit his speech and blew it. This is why he won’t be President until he learns to not do this.

    Anyway, going forward it would be nice if he were to prove his support for the project by coming up with a proper funding source for it that isn’t the Federal government. A new gas tax won’t work, but him raising commercial property taxes (in exchange for Prop 13 homeowner portability, as has been discussed in the legislature) would more than cover it while also funding his purported support of Medi-Cal expansion.

    For as optimistic as I’m trying to be, Newsom is proving that Villar would have made the better Governor. It’s up to him to prove otherwise.

  10. He picked Merced instead of Madera because ACE is extending to Merced in 2027, and Sacramento sooner than that.

  11. See his budget proposal. He’s adding several billion in new spending in other programs like housing, college aid, and health care. Different priorities also needing billions to accomplish.

  12. All true. That said, Schwarzenegger had a pretty good environmental record. It is up to Newsom to do better.

  13. Caltrans projects span from Crescent City to Calexico and from Alturas to San Ysidro. There is much more to California than just SF and LA that Caltrans is responsible for.

  14. @Do Something Nice – Because it’s become such a partisan issue, people forget that Schwarzenegger was nominally in favor of Prop 1A to get CAHSR off the ground. However, at the same time, he also pushed through Prop 1B, the largest public works bond in U.S. history, to fund highways. Prop 1B was to address the shortfall that occurred due to his “populist” signature issue when running for office, which was not resuming VTL fees. We’re still in the middle of 30 years of debt service for that.

    The beauty of this is that he’s off driving his biodiesel Humvee to climate conferences and his successors have to pay it off.

  15. Train Riders of California had a plan with HSR on the west side of the valley with transfer stations to traditional rail near Bakersfield and Tracy that would serve the valley towns. Lower land acquisition costs and less disruption.

    Personally, I always thought HSR should have gone to Oakland rather than San Francisco. It would have been easier and cheaper to build and more central to the Bay Area.

  16. The California governor’s decision brings to closure a case study in mis-management of funds, land acquisition, and route planning; politics of the extreme by the state’s GOP congressional delegation who closed down all of the usual federal program benefits accorded transportation projects; and the economic hinderance of NIMBYs coveting their power over mobility and economic development.

    But to truly appreciate this fiasco requires stepping back into 2009, when the Obama Administration received $9 Billion to fund high speed rail (HSR), with two choices how to use the funds:

    1) Respect history and the topography of the Midwest that provided numerous higher speed rail corridors of passenger trains under steam, later diesel, typically running at 90+mph over jointed rail and numerous grade crossings. The private rail operators competed on speed and service into the early 1960s. Had Obama picked just one of those corridors to build-out, the success of a viable high speed line would have most certainly triggered interest-and private investment-to identify similar corridors of opportunity. Or,

    2) Take the political road by spreading the $9 Billion like bread crumbs amongst as many states as possible to secure their loyalty to the Administration.

    Unfortunately, Obama chose the purely political approach; thus, sacrificing a once in a lifetime opportunity to jump start HSR in America. Further tanking the concept of HSR included federal proposals to foolishly promote as HSR the very short route between Orlando-Tampa; another short route between Milwaukee-Madison; incremental improvement to the Cincinatti-Columbus-Cleveland route.

    Interestingly, the only hope for higher speed and HSR development is now solely in the hands of private firms, including Brightline/Virgin (Miami-Orlando-Tampa; Las Vegas-Victorville) and Texas Central (Dallas-Houston). But once again, lobbyists financed by NIMBYs fund politicians to fight these projects to prevent mobility and development.

  17. Not sure what The Gav is thinking but he must have expectations that CAHSR will be completed from SF-LA. It makes no sense to limit the project to just Merced-Bakersfield unless there are plans to link the state’s two larges population centers. If it were only Merced-Bakersfield with no future expansion then CAHSR should be literally scrapped or at the most mothballed.

    All I can figure is that he’s trading the CAHSR corral of horses so he can continue to play Defender of the California Republic Against the Evil Trump Administration, leveraging that to seek higher public office. Maybe he thinks he can make up for it by being Santa Claus of the Oval Office shoveling gifts to his Sans and Santas back in the home state?

  18. It doesn’t. Gavin actually said electrification will continue.

    Downtown extension to transbay was never promised money (or much money) from HSR, so that project remains isn’t impacted much either way.

  19. To be fair, that was a choice on whether the project would unite Central Valley, or just be an airplane alternative for SF to LA passengers. The choice the selected is more expensive and slower, but like all such things, gets amortized over centuries.

    Sadly, the wasn’t that part that was challenging, it was the lawsuit by Atherton/Menlo Park that delayed things by many years and increased the costs.

  20. Kinda apples and oranges and kinda not. Caltrans projects span LA to SF. HSR is also many projects SF to LA. Both transport people, both cost state money, but one spews way less CO2 and provides new options.

  21. But it’s on an existing single-track alignment, and neither of the cities I listed are impacted by Valley-Link. Valley Link is a good project, btw. Hope they speed up ACE.

  22. He all but closed any future on the high speed rail to and from nowhere. The nowhere train that gets you there faster.

  23. CHSR was always about enriching contractors and consultants. The Train Riders Association of California and European HSR experts pointed out all the mistakes that the CHSRA was making and made suggestions of how it could be done better for less money. Did the CHSRA listen? No. They promised a fast and efficient train ride from downtown SF to downtown LA,but instead we got a project that rammed a viaduct through downtown Bakersfield, made a huge detour through Palmdale ??!! with miles of tunnels and stops in a bunch of Central Valley towns where nobody needs to get to in a hurry. What a joke. Stick a fork in CHSR; it’s done.

  24. Perhaps you haven’t heard, but Altamont rail (Valley Link) project is already going forward, with support from Tri-valley cities.

  25. So ignoring inflation, Caltrans budget is $270 billion over 20 years. From what I read, about $20-30 billion were already committed to HSR. We clearly can’t afford another $30 billion to finish the project. Shame.

  26. I googled it:

    “The Governor’s budget provides a total of $22.5 billion from all fund sources for transportation departments and programs in 2018‑19. This is an increase of $4.2 billion, or 23 percent, over estimated expenditures for the current year. Specifically, the budget includes $13.6 billion for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), $2.7 billion for local streets and roads, $2.6 billion for the California Highway Patrol (CHP), $1.2 billion for the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), $1.1 billion for the High‑Speed Rail Authority, and $1.3 billion for various other transportation programs.”

  27. Caltrans budget is about 10 billion a year, so $200 billion over 20 years. That doesn’t include all the local taxes. VTA expects to collect 6 billion (in 2017 dollars) over 30 years.

  28. It’s as much failure of Trump and Washington. Illinois HSR was funded 50% by federal grants. California can mere 10% from Washington. If we got 50% like other projects, we’d be well on our way to digging tunnels to SF and LA.

    Here’s to hope that next administration can provide funding help resume the tunnel work.

  29. I can assure that Pleasanton, Dublin, Livermore, East Palo Alton and Menlo Park NIMBY will be a much tougher obstacle than Pacheco Pass. Delays alone would cost more than a tunnel.

  30. Big projects cost money. The 2nd Ave subway in NYC has only 2 miles completed and it cost $4.5 billion.

  31. Merced to Bakersfield? Hell of a plan. What do train passengers use to travel to and fro train stations? Uber?

    Seriously, 80 or so years ago rail service was time competitive to CURRENT best case drive times from Bakerfield to Sacramento or the East Bay. Few stops, well-maintained rail beds and far fewer right of way crossings made it possible for trains to roll.

    Even today, for many, EXISTING rail service is time competitive and way more relaxing for trips between – say – Fresno and Oakland or much of the North Bay, INCLUDING much of the bay side of lower Marin County.

    CHSRA was an overwrought and wicked expensive tech proposal to solve a problem that can more readily be mostly accomplished for short money and standard rolling stock.

  32. 36 days being governor and he does this. I would love to see all of the analysis and efforts they put into trying to make the project work (I doubt there is any).

    I’m very disappointed and I fear that Schwarzenegger may end up having a better environmental record than Newsom.

    How symbolic.

  33. IF (and only if) this is considered as a pause to think and improve the project, and improve the politico-economic environment for it, it would show strength. Otherwise, it would be a declaration of bankruptcy for the 6th or so biggest economy on this planet to not being able and willing to complete such a lousy little project.

    An example for improving the environment would be the creation of a tool similar to the French “Declaration d’Utilité Publique”, which would considerably speed up the preparation work. Another example would be an overhaul over the tons and tons of “studies” which then can be disputed in court, over and over and over…

  34. Trying to look on the bright side, this might give CHSRA the ability to scrap some of its poorer decisions, such as building a miles out of the way detour via Palmdale and a 13.5 mile tunnel beneath Pacheco Pass. Instead, they could build it via the Grapevine and Altamont pass. At the very least, it means a new track for the San Joaquin.

  35. Try harder to spin this. He’s nipping this off as best he can, without actually setting it on fire. The entire prior administrations approach was an insult to rational thought. Complete HSR to SF & LA with ‘future federal’ dollars? ;-). That’s called kicking the can waaaay down the road. And would likely involve another proposition to come before voters.

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