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Newsom is right to scale back the bullet train, and it’s good politics too

Newsom is right to scale back the bullet train, and it’s good politics too
Gov. Newsom is sticking to his campaign promises of scaling back the high-speed rail and water-tunnels projects. (John G. Mabanglo / EPA-EFE/REX)

If anyone thought that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration would merely be an extension of fellow Democrat Jerry Brown’s, that notion has been completely obliterated.

Brown’s — and before him Arnold Schwarzenegger’s — humongous Los Angeles to San Francisco bullet train was always a pipedream. And in his first State of the State address Tuesday, Newsom woke up all the train zealots from their fantasyland.

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“Let’s level about the high-speed rail,” Newsom told a joint session of the Legislature. “I have nothing but respect for Gov. Brown’s and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s vision .…

“But let’s be real. The project as planned would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego,” Newsom said of the original route promised voters, “let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”

“However,” Newsom continued, “we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield. Now, I know that some critics will say this is a ‘train to nowhere.’ But that’s wrong and offensive.

“The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America as well as some of the longest commutes in the state. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better. ... Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield and communities in between are more dynamic than people realize.”

Aside from the economic pragmatics of sidetracking an unaffordable $77-billion project, it’s good politics for a liberal Democrat to reach out to a core Republican region where more than half the counties voted for President Trump in 2016.

Newsom never seriously considered junking the whole project. Much has already been spent. If the state just walked away, it would owe the federal government $3.5 billion in seed money. Might as well complete the route from Merced to Bakersfield and try to get something out of it, the new governor concluded.

Otherwise, he explained to the lawmakers, “We will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises, unfulfilled commitments and lawsuits to show for it.”

President Trump tweeted Wednesday that Newsom’s action means that California owes the feds $3.5 billion and “we want that money back now.” But the president’s facts were wrong. As usual.

Bullet train dreamers have always argued that California is the fifth largest economy in the world, so there’s no reason it can’t afford to build a high-speed rail system. Smaller countries have. That’s rubbish.

California is a state. It doesn’t print money. It must balance its budget books annually. Those other bullet train builders are nations and they usually partner with private enterprise. No private investor is interested in California’s project.

While campaigning for governor last year, Newsom said he’d scale back Brown’s two big legacy infrastructure projects: the bullet train and monstrous twin water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. And that’s what he did Tuesday.

Newsom rejected the $17-billion twin tunnels idea, but said — as promised — that he supports a compromise single tunnel.

There’s a lesson here: Newsom might be worth listening to. At least on the train and tunnels, he wasn’t just some politician blowing smoke.

In October, the candidate told me he was optimistic there’d be enough money to build the line from Merced to San Jose through the Pacheco Pass. People could live in the affordable San Joaquin Valley and commute to high-paying tech jobs in the Silicon Valley.

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But there was no specific mention of a “valley to valley” line in Tuesday’s speech. That was left open to speculation.

“Look, we will continue our regional projects north and south,” he said. “We’ll connect the revitalized Central Valley to other parts of the state and continue to push for more federal funding and private dollars. But let’s just get something done once and for all.”

Legislators interpreted that differently.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a former Fresno mayor and longtime bullet train critic, said: “We’ve known for quite some time there’s only enough money for a rump railroad between Bakersfield and Merced. The governor confirmed it.”

He sounded bitter.

“This experiment has essentially collapsed,” he said. “We’ve lost thousands of acres that should be returned to agriculture folks. We’ve got blight land nobody wants anymore, we’ve got squatters, got trash, junk. It’s a mess. California owes Fresno what it takes to make us whole.”

But Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), who originally authored the high-speed rail legislation that was eventually approved by voters, saw a glass half full.

“In no way do I believe the governor was saying, ‘That’s it, we’re done,’” Galgiani said, adding that she personally confirmed this with Newsom. “He’s saying instead of focusing on six different segments at once, let’s get this one done.”

When the $15 billion Merced-to-Bakersfield route is completed, she added, the governor or his successor can take it another step.

Anyway, Galgiani said, she’s excited about the train coming to Merced. Because from there, riders will be able to connect with a commuter train to San Jose over the Altamont Pass into the East Bay.

That commuter train currently only goes to Stockton. But as part of a gas tax backroom deal two years ago, Brown provided $400 million to extend the rail line 61 miles to Merced.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a former speech writer for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said, “I’m going to give Newsom credit. He did something Jerry Brown was not capable of. And that is admitting the obvious about high-speed rail.”

Newsom’s message: There’s a new conductor in town.

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