California High-Speed Rail is Still On

Fatuous headlines abound after Newsom's confusing State of the State speech

The HSR Cedar Viaduct in South Fresno. Lots more tunnels and aerials such as this will be needed to bridge the Tehachapis. Photo: CAHSRA
The HSR Cedar Viaduct in South Fresno. Lots more tunnels and aerials such as this will be needed to bridge the Tehachapis. Photo: CAHSRA

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NBC News’s headline read “Gov. Gavin Newsom slams brakes on San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train.” Time Magazine had “California Scraps Plan to Build High-Speed Railroad Between Los Angeles and San Francisco.” And the notoriously biased LA Times once again managed to sow misinformation, even on this rare occasion of supporting the project, with the headline “Abandoning high-speed rail would be a mistake for California, the country and the planet.”

We agree with the sentiment of the LA Times on this one, but as we reported yesterday, Newsom didn’t say he was abandoning high-speed rail in his State of the State. He also didn’t say he was scrapping or slamming the brakes on it. In fact, he said exactly the opposite.

Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary reiterated in a follow-up to the speech:

Again, Newsom said “We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for California.”

To an extent, the overblown headlines are Newsom’s own fault. The HSR segment of the speech was confusing, with the governor acknowledging past work on the project by his predecessors as if he were signaling a major change in direction.

From the speech:

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

But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.

Right now [emphasis added], there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.

Which seems to set up an announcement that he intends to kill the project. But what followed did no such thing.

As San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener tweeted:

If we take Newsom and his chief of staff literally, environmental work and planning will continue on the full L.A. to S.F. alignment. When a friendly administration gets back into power in Washington, construction can get underway on connecting the two cities to the Central Valley spine between Bakersfield and Merced. The new House of Representatives has made it clear with its “Green New Deal” that it would fund a full California HSR system. We’ll see what happens in the 2020 election with the White House and the Senate. Meanwhile, work on the spine–seen in the lead image–continues unabated.

There are already passenger tracks between the Central Valley and the Bay Area used by Amtrak and the Altamont Commuter Express. HSR trains can slow and continue on these existing tracks (towed behind a diesel or by using off-the-shelf dual-mode technology). So greatly improved services that are high-speed some of the way and slow speed on other segments between the Central Valley and the Bay Area will be possible as a stop-gap service until the political winds change in Washington. (By the way, the aforementioned pro-HSR editorial in the LA Times also spreads the ubiquitous nonsense that the plan would result in a bullet train that “…never leaves the Central Valley, but only shuttles between Bakersfield and Merced.”) Other HSR funds are being used to help modernize transit throughout the state, such as Caltrain, which is busy electrifying.

“The Governor has called for setting a priority on getting high-speed rail operating in the only region in which we have commenced construction–the Central Valley. We are eager to meet this challenge and expand the project’s economic impact in the Central Valley. Importantly, he also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our ‘bookend’ investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion,” wrote Brian Kelly, California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO, in a statement on the address.

Of course, none of this stopped anti-HSR congressman Kevin McCarthy, who refers to Bakersfield, the city he represents, as “nowhere,” from hearing what he wanted to hear (or what his Koch/big petroleum contributors with their war on transit want him to hear).

Too bad HSR doesn’t guzzle gasoline, so McCarthy and his ilk could support massive Federal funding for it, the way they do for highways.

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