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Opinion

Editorial: Abandoning high-speed rail would be a mistake for California, the country and the planet

California Governor Newsom State of the State address, Sacramento, USA - 10 Feb 2019
Gov. Newsom after delivering his first State of the State address in Sacramento, Calif. on Feb. 12.
(John G. Mabanglo / EPA-EFE / REX)

Gov. Gavin Newsom distressed some people and delighted others Tuesday when he announced that he was putting on hold California’s ambitious plans to build a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and that he would instead focus on finishing high-speed rail service where construction was already underway: between Bakersfield and Merced.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom declared during his first State of the State speech. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

Newsom said he’ll continue to push for the necessary billions of dollars in federal funding and private investment to extend the bullet train beyond the Central Valley. But implicit in his comments was a warning: It’s entirely possible that most of California will never get the high-speed rail service that voters approved at the ballot in 2008.

It boggles the mind that California cannot get the bullet train moving.
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But let’s be real, governor. Abandoning high-speed rail would be a tragic mistake for California, for the country and for the planet.

Newsom has been squishy on high-speed rail for a long time. Although he’s long said he’s a big supporter of the concept, he complained in 2015 that “the math doesn’t add up.” Now, as governor, he is trying to have it both ways, first declaring that the project can’t be built as planned, then letting his chief of staff tweet later that Newsom is “fully committed to high-speed rail.”

Yes, the bullet train has been fraught with problems for years. The project is way beyond the original budget and timetable, and every few months bring headlines telling of new challenges and cost overruns. Newsom is right to be skeptical — and he’s proposed some much-needed oversight and transparency changes.

If the proponents of high-speed rail had been more honest in the beginning about the costs and challenges of building this mega-project, perhaps we’d be in a better place today. Gov. Jerry Brown was far too starry-eyed about the train and seemed to believe he could build it by ambition alone. If the challenges to this ambitious project are to be overcome it will take Newsom’s leadership, which will make or break it.

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But amid the complications and obstacles, let’s not forget what made high-speed rail such a compelling vision in the first place, and what California would lose if the project were never completed.

If the world is going to deter climate change destruction, now is the time to build a fossil-fuel-free economy and transportation sector. It’s ironic that uber-progressive California is ready to pull the plug on the bullet train just as some congressional Democrats are promoting the idea of a Green New Deal that would include a massive investment in just that form of transit.

The bullet train was supposed to be the backbone of a fast, clean mass-transportation system that would connect urban centers across the state. It’s clear that California has to expand its transportation systems to keep up with population and economic growth. The bullet train offered a more sustainable solution than paving more farmland for freeway lanes and adding more planes to the skies.

Though the project has often been sold as a fast train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, its greater economic and societal value always has been the connections it would create between the state’s Central Valley cities and its coastal urban areas. The train would lessen the isolation between affluent coast and struggling interior towns, and give Californians easier access to jobs, affordable housing and universities.

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A bullet train that never leaves the Central Valley, but only shuttles between Bakersfield and Merced, may not be a “train to nowhere,” but its value and potential would be greatly diminished.

California has the world’s fifth-largest economy. It’s a center of innovation and environmental stewardship. Yet somehow California — and, frankly, the United States — has been unable to build modern, high-speed train systems while countries from Europe to China and Japan have miles and miles of active high-speed routes. In the years since California voted to spend nearly $10 billion on the project, Uzbekistan started and completed construction on a high-speed rail line between its two largest cities.

It boggles the mind that California cannot get the bullet train moving. Newsom has inherited a messy and complicated project. He’s right to be realistic about the challenges, but he can’t give up on the ambition and vision that high-speed rail represents.

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