Governor Newsom Retreats On High Speed Rail

Revised Merced-Bakersfield vision in “State of the State” speech indicates reluctance to spend political capital

Governor Newsom’s “State of the State” speech today offered an abrupt scaling back of the state’s vision for its signature infrastructure project, high speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco:

[L]et’s level about high speed rail.  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, 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.

However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.

In some ways, his position is a simple nod to fiscal reality. There aren’t enough funds right now to complete the project beyond this initial phase in the Central Valley anyway. Voters approved roughly $10 billion in bond funding in 2008, the 2009 federal “stimulus” bill offered another $3.5 billion, and Governor Brown and the legislature dedicated about 25% of cap-and-trade auction proceeds to continue building the system.

But that’s not enough to connect the Central Valley portion through the Pacheco Pass into San Jose, where it could then connect to the soon-to-be-electrified Caltrain into San Francisco. And it’s nowhere near the multiple billions of dollars needed to tunnel through the Tehachapi Mountains to connect to Southern California.

The key is the federal government: with Republicans in complete control of Congress from 2011 until last month, they were unwilling to match the state’s investment with federal dollars. While highway projects will get 90-100% funding from the federal government and intracity rail transit will get 50%, high speed rail has gotten just about 15% in federal matching funds — and only from that one-time 2009 stimulus grant.

If California had received closer to a 50% match from the federal government, the rail system would have the money to connect to the Bay Area. That link would provide significant economic benefits for Central Valley cities like Fresno and Merced by connecting them to the prosperous coastal economy. And it would create immediate benefits to bolster the long-term political support needed to eventually extend the system to Southern California.

But Governor Newsom’s speech today shows that he’s unlikely to spend much political capital to fight for these federal dollars from a congress that now features many California representatives, including the speaker, in control of the House of Representatives. It’s a position consistent with his 2014 interview in which he stated he would redirect funds from the system to other infrastructure needs.

Instead, his scaled-back vision presents a message that may confirm critics’ charges that the system is flawed and potentially infeasible. Some also worry that the new plan will embolden more litigants, arguing that the change in project vision violates the terms of that original 2008 bond initiative, although the courts have so far been deferential to state leaders on this question.

High speed rail backers will ultimately need a change in federal leadership come 2021 to get the necessary funds to complete the project — but it looks like they will have only tepid support from the state’s new governor in the meantime.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Governor Newsom Retreats On High Speed Rail”

  1. I wonder about the basic paradigm of high speed rail. Rail has a design mission of carrying heavy stuff relatively slowly, whereas people are very light. This suggests that vehicles for carrying people could themselves be very light, like aircraft instead of being like iron ore bulk carriers.

    One important problem of rail is also right of way. A few simple “back of an envelope calculations suggest that an elevated single rail system with the vehicle hanging beneath might be an alternative. The rail could be supported like a suspension bridge with cables every few feet and a few towers per mile. Then the right of way could be above a freeway, so no new property need be obtained.

    The light cars would be easily powered, quieter, and probably less expensive, and tunneling would not be required either.

    I don’t really know if this would actually be less expensive and so on, but it might be worth a more serious analysis.

    1. I am a great fan of passenger rail in general. I lived in the UK for a while and frequently took the night train from London to Glasgow or Aberdeen. I also use the regular AMTRAK service from Baltimore to NYC and MARC from Baltimore to DC. I have even taken a number of antique steam trains in various parts of the country (there is one near Healdsburg, if you like).

      However, if we are going to spend that kind of money, and fundamentally change a mission criteria (speed) we need to back up and look over the entire paradigm; even BART deviates in some important ways from conventional rail practices for important engineering reasons. Overhead suspension may not be the best idea, but it is one possibility given the radical change in speed, and we should be looking widely at a range of options. We also need to do “strawman” studies to understand the full consequences of the basic mission criteria. This is a basic element of the design of any system, especially transit systems, where the vehicle is just a small part of the entire system.

  2. As another example of an alternative system, a PAR-WIG, or Ekranoplan (wing in ground effect ferry) could provide transit service between San Francisco and LA in a couple of hours at reduced energy coat and substantially less infrastructure cost than high speed rail.

    However, this illustrates some of the questions that need to be answered and traded off in transit planning.

    * Why are we doing this?

    * Who will use it?

    * For any advanced technology system, how will people get from the airport/ferry terminal/train station to where they actually went to be?

    * How will it change the rest of the environment; would Ekranoplans encourage urban sprawl in Eureka?

    * Is it worth it?

    One Navy admiral wrote a piece on this type of problem in designing advanced ships; the theme was “It goes fast – so what?”. Like the Navy, we.need to understand the mission, its needs, its results, its alternatves, and its costs to make a decision on how to accomplish it and what other parameters are required (and their costs and trade-offs).

    A conventional high speed train might work in the UK and kind of naturally evolved in the existing infrastructure, but I could take the Tube from my home in London to the train station, catch the fast train to Glasgow, switch trains to a local and step out at the gate of Scotts Lithgow shipyard in Greennoch without needing a car or dealing with traffic. We don’t have that environment in California.

    However, even here, my office usually wouldn’t cover the cost of the fast train, and instead put me on the overnight train, so I could leave home after dinner and show up at the shipyard at breakfast.

    This worked out fine for me and for any business purpose, and if the goal is Silicon Valley business travel, we can get sleep cars a lot cheaper than a high speed train.

    It is time to step back and restart the whole analysis of why we are doing this and what is the best way to get there.

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Ethan Elkind

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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