A 23-year-old plan to build a high-speed rail connecting Northern and Southern California appears to maybe, possibly, finally be dead. After years of lawsuits over its route and partisan bickering over how to fund it, Governor Gavin Newsom rang the death knell last week — or, rather, he floated the very real possibility that it will only ever be a train from Merced to Bakersfield.
In his first State of the State address, Newsom used the phrase "Let's be real," and proceeded to burst anyone's bubble who had hopes of boarding a zippy train from downtown SF to downtown LA sometime in the next half century. As the Sacramento Bee reports, Newsom got tough in his talk about the project that's now estimated to cost $77 billion — up from an original budget of $33 billion — leading to many TV news segments and headlines up and down the state declaring the project deceased.
We've known for years that the rail line wasn't fully funded and faced an uphill battle both logistically and legally. But former governor Jerry Brown, who had championed the project for years and defended it against more frugal naysayers in the state house, was no longer there to tell us everything was going to be alright, and reactions were swift and extreme.
Newsom has been walking back his official stance, as the Chronicle reports, saying he still supports the LA-to-SF plan in theory, but he wants in the short term to focus on the 165-mile Central Valley leg that is already under construction. Noting that critics have called this a "train to nowhere," Newsom claimed to find such talk "offensive" and suggested that a high-speed link between the two ends of the state's agricultural center could still be of great economic value. This segment could be complete by 2027, Newsom said.
The official word is that the Merced-to-SF leg, which we weren't expecting until 2033 at last count (remember when they said it would be done in 2020?), is still under environmental review, along with the Bakersfield-to-LA segment. The southern end of the rail line is the most geographically challenging with the tracks having to potentially go under the San Gabriel Mountains — though a 50-mile leg connecting Palmdale to Burbank is being studied, which requires just such a tunnel.
On Friday the New Yorker published a piece suggesting that Newsom is probably being shrewd to lower everyone's hopes about the SF-to-LA train. Not only does he likely have bigger ambitions to run for president long before the northern and southern extensions can be built, he also wants to look like a fiscally responsible politician in the face of a project that by all accounts has been poorly managed.
Also, as far as populist priorities go, this isn't really one of them. There are plenty of quick and cheap airline connections between the two ends of the state, and as awesome as a high-speed train would be, the biggest problem it solves for Los Angelenos and San Franciscans is the ability to hop on and off in a downtown area without ever suffering the hassle of a trip to the airport.
As the New Yorker puts it, "In practice, the S.F.-to-L.A. route would operate chiefly as a business train, for inter-city meeting-makers, executives bouncing between offices, multiple-home owners, and unmoored media types... It’s an alternative connection for already well-connected people." Everyone else is still going to keep flying, driving, and taking the bus.
And then there's the issue of how visionary this is really going to seem in 2033 or 2040 or whenever this bullet train can conceivably be completed. Won't Elon Musk have given us the jetpacks we were promised by then? Or won't we at least be hopping in high-speed self-driving Ubers that take us door-to-door in whatever city we like? Or what about that high-speed monorail?
Despite Newsom's calculated choice to get our hopes in check rather than sounding Brown's familiar note of optimism and grand vision, this thing is still moving forward. Countless Californians have contracts to study this or that aspect of the sprawling, mind-numbingly complicated project. And study it they will until the next time we pass a bond measure to save this thing, or until a Democratic president decides to throw us a few billion federal bucks.
Related: Train to nowhere? Here’s how high-speed project went off the rails [SF Chronicle]
No, Gov. Gavin Newsom didn’t kill high-speed rail. But what’s his Plan B? [Sac Bee]
Is Gavin Newsom Right to Slow Down California's High-Speed Train [New Yorker]