Governor Gavin Newsom, in his State of the State speech, put the brakes on the high-speed rail project reducing its size and scope but did not abandon it completely. That is–alas– the wisest course, even though voters were sold a bill of goods originally on the cost, timing and efficiency of the project.
One California assembly member from the region, Vince Fong, called Newsom’s idea of completing the Merced to Bakersfield section of the high-speed rail a recasting of the project as a “bait-and-switch on all Californians and Central Valley residents.”
Hard to argue that promises were not kept, but something has to be done with an already started project. In that light, one thinks of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s principle, “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
While the entire bullet train project won’t be completed under Newsom’s order, the Willie Brown strategy still holds to some degree. The hole was dug and leaving it unfilled is not an answer even though I debated against the rail bond when it was on the ballot and have railed against it (pardon the pun) ever since.
Another frequent critic of the high-speed-rail from the Central Valley, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, agreed that the first phase of the project must be completed. “After tearing up prime Ag land and ripping up the heart of our cities, we must ensure that we aren’t left with the unfinished scraps of a failed project.”
The governor said he was leveling with Californians about the high-speed rail. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”
Objecting to critics who will say that a Merced to Bakersfield run is “a train to nowhere,” Newsom argued that the Central Valley is “hungry for investment, a workforce eager for more training and good jobs, Californians who deserve a fair share of our state’s prosperity.”
“High-Speed Rail is much more than a train project. It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley,” Newsom said. He argued the train could serve as a “backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley economy.”
His vision about the prospects for the Central Valley are worth pursuing but success could depend on, as Newsom put it, connecting the revitalized Valley to the rest of the state. That would require additional infrastructure improvements. As they come, those improvements better be more realistic than projections of the high-speed rail have been.