Gov. Gavin Newsom has never been a fan of high-speed rail, at least not the fan that his predecessor Jerry Brown was.
And in his State of the State address Tuesday, Newsom seemingly pulled the plug on the Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed rail project. Instead, the governor sought to emphasize the leg already under construction that would link Bakersfield to Merced. Since the high-speed rail project has been fraught with cost overruns with an estimated price tag of $77 million, it does make financial sense to scale back to a more realistic proposal. Now, instead of a train to nowhere, we will have a train from somewhere to somewhere else. The original vision was to “shrink the state” and have train travel an alternative to airplanes. However, it is apparent that such a conceptual project would be too heavy a lift. Brown tried while he could, after all, he was committed. Yet Newsom has no such entanglements.
One point of information. Those who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of Caltrain electrification may be concerned that a refocus of the high-speed rail project on the Central Valley may mean that a $713 million commitment toward the $2 billion local project would evaporate. The governor assured that would not be the case, and even Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett sent out a statement Tuesday afternoon to reassure that the governor did in fact reiterate the state’s obligation to help fund the Caltrain electrification project. This high-speed rail money was rooted in a “blended system” compromise hammered together in 2011 to minimize property takings and to eliminate the need to add an aerial viaduct to support a four-track system.
While hope for a high-speed rail train from Los Angeles to the heart of San Francisco was dealt a significant blow, the idea is not quite dead. There could be a chance that more work could be done once the Bakersfield to Merced connection is completed. And there is also a chance that one day high-speed rail trains will find their way into the San Francisco Transbay Terminal. But that is far far far off into the future and the past performance of the high-speed rail project surely indicates there would have to be a significant revamp in how any extension is done for it to pass muster and gain the support it needs to move ahead.
The high-speed rail project was launched in earnest more than a decade ago, with pie in the sky ambition. But as with any massive infrastructure project, it faced opposition and cost overruns. There was little chance of success under its current composition. While nearly everyone knew that, there were some who were willing to push it forward. In governing, there is a time to dream and time to get real. Newsom chose to get real, while keeping the promise to fund Caltrain electrification, and keeping the door open to more phases but in a different form. This was a tough choice, but the right choice.