I have an op-ed published in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the HSR project, titled Why California’s bullet train should not stall. It was commissioned right before the State of the State address, but the editors generously gave me time to revise to include Newsom’s remarks.
And those remarks have now caused a major rift with the federal government, as Donald Trump has ordered the Department of Transportation to cancel $900 million in CA HSR funding and seek repayment of $2.5 billion in previously distributed money:
The move marks an escalation in the war between President Trump and California in the days since Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a rethinking of the bullet train project after years of cost overruns.
The Transportation Department also announced it was “actively exploring every legal option to seek the return from California of $2.5 billion in federal funds.” It’s unclear whether it has the legal authority to do so, and California would probably oppose such a move.
In a short statement, federal officials said California had “failed to make reasonable progress” on the project and questioned whether it could be completed on the schedule in the grants.
Gov. Newsom and his team would have people believe that this is all the media’s fault for misreporting his State of the State remarks, in which it was claimed that Newsom was canceling the HSR project. Trump seized on that, especially to try and strike back against a governor and a state who have consistently been attacking him and his projects.
But it’s possible that Newsom didn’t actually misspeak. Why was he so vague and unclear on HSR when he was direct and clear in other parts of his speech?
Yonah Freemark has a theory:
Alternative theory: Newsom was intentionally vague and confusing in his state of the state on high speed rail so as to trigger Trump & DOT to react, and force a confrontation with CA.
I think there is a slightly different answer, one I’ve heard from a few sources in recent days.
My view is that Newsom truly wants to stop the HSR project. He likely sees it as a Schwarzenegger/Brown project that he shouldn’t have to carry forward. I wouldn’t be surprised if he and his staff were asking themselves why they would have to slog ahead on a project they didn’t start (even though it was a project Newsom fully and vocally supported in the late 2000s).
He also probably thought he’d get kudos from fiscal hawks and be seen in the media as a smart budgeter, someone who would not plow ahead with a controversial project.
But Newsom also has constituencies he wants to court who strongly back HSR. This includes businesses in the Central Valley, in the Silicon Valley, and construction unions. The latter group, I’m told, was furious with Newsom last week after seeing the initial articles about what he said on HSR in his speech.
Newsom also knew that if it sounded like he was canceling the project, Trump and the feds would come after CA and demand repayment of billions of dollars in funding.
So if you were a governor of California who wanted to kill a project and get some media credit for it, but also not piss off key allies, you might say something similar to what Newsom actually said in his speech last week:
“But let’s be real,” Newsom said to lawmakers gathered for the State of the State speech. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, 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.,” Newsom said. “I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
As someone who’s written speeches for elected officials, I know how this goes. Sometimes you want to do too much at one time and wind up causing more problems than you intended. Newsom wanted to have it both ways and wound up causing himself a massive headache.
Had Newsom stopped after the first paragraph he’d have been fine. He’d have put on the table some kind of project review and given himself the opportunity to figure out a different path forward. But he plowed ahead and got himself and the state in hot water, by suggesting all that would be built was the Merced to Bakersfield line.
Newsom has badly botched this entire thing. He needs to offer a mea culpa not just for his words, but for his actions. A leader in the era of climate crisis cannot simply look at a challenging situation and walk away. High speed rail is essential to California’s future and to its ability to reduce carbon emissions. The problems Newsom has encountered call for him to step up and lead, not walk away and quit. Maybe Trump’s sour grapes attempt to claw back California’s HSR money will be what it takes to convince Newsom to change his approach here.
I will have more to say about his “leadership” in another location, hopefully to be published soon. But for now I want to address the issue of how we got here.
In the wake of this horrible news, several longtime observers have suggested that different decisions about how to connect the Central Valley to the coasts might have led to a different outcome. Alon Levy doesn’t quite put it that way, but he does use the occasion to suggest revisiting the question of Altamont vs. Pacheco and especially Tejon vs. Tehachapi.
He makes fine points, and I wouldn’t mind if the route got moved. But I also want to caution folks against the notion that different route choices would have produced a different outcome. They wouldn’t have, because the route choices didn’t matter when it came to the larger obstacles facing HSR in CA.
David Dayen wrote the best examination of why CA HSR failed. He identified three main factors: Republican opposition, NIMBY obstruction, and poor contracting and bureaucratic management practices.
All of these problems would have bedeviled an Altamont or a Tejon alignment. In fact, some of these would have been even bigger challenges.
Imagine an alternate universe where the CHSRA chose an Altamont and a Tejon alignment. In that universe, you would expect lawsuits and protests from residents of Pleasanton and Livermore vehemently opposed to running bullet trains through their communities. After all, Livermore NIMBYs forced a BART extension to terminate in the middle of Interstate 580, rather than in their walkable downtown. (And ultimately BART gave up on the extension entirely.) These NIMBYs would have had considerable political leverage, especially in recent years when Catherine Baker represented the area in the Assembly, one of the few “moderate” Republicans in the state.
NIMBYs along the Tehachapi route caused numerous problems for the CHSRA, especially along the Highway 14 corridor east of Santa Clarita and in the Sunland-Tujunga area south of the San Gabriels. But the I-5 alignment wouldn’t have been any better. If you’ve ever driven on the 5 in this area you’ll know that there is a lot of population along the route north of the 14 interchange, especially up to Castaic. North of Castaic, where the mountainous part of the route exists, there’s still small communities like Gorman, Frazier Park, and Lebec to contend with.
It’s entirely possible a Tejon alignment would have generated even more intense opposition from those communities than the Tehachapi alignment did. And while a Tejon alignment would have reduced the dramatic impacts the Tehachapi alignment had on east Bakersfield, that may simply have been exchanged for impacts on south Bakersfield.
Clem Tillier and others have pointed out that Tejon is a cheaper alignment than Tehachapi. The problem is that this is only a relative cost savings, and that even a Tejon alignment was more expensive than the CHSRA had the ability to afford with its current resources.
The fatal blow to CA HSR may well have come in November 2010 when Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives. They blocked all new federal HSR funding and blew a massive hole in the CHSRA’s financial plans, which relied on a significant and ongoing federal contribution. Without that money, no alignment between Bakersfield and LA was possible – unless California was willing to go it alone, in which case the cost savings between a Tejon and a Tehachapi alignment wasn’t the deciding factor.
Of course, even if the state legislature and Governor Newsom stepped up to provide that money, there’s still Republican opposition to contend with – whether in the U.S. Senate, which they still control, or in the federal regulatory agencies that govern passenger rail, which Republicans still control.
And even if you overcome those obstacles, you still have all the contracting, bureaucratic management, and land acquisition problems that Dayen and others have identified. A Tejon alignment is still a significant engineering challenge, with a major mountain range to cross. HSR projects in other countries have successfully met these challenges, but the problems we saw in getting HSR built in the Central Valley would have been significantly intensified in tunneling under the Tejon Pass.
As we figure out how to move ahead, it’s important to remember that the route choices weren’t the problem, and they’re not the solution. Until we can overcome Republican opposition, NIMBYism, and contracting and management issues that undermine megaprojects across the state and country, we’re never going to get this thing built, no matter where we put the tracks.
California’s high speed rail had yet another good election night, although as is all too common with the project, there’s always a few storm clouds in the sky.
The biggest news is that Proposition 70 is getting crushed. As of this writing it’s losing 64-36 and is not passing in a single one of the state’s 58 counties. This is the initiative that would have forced a one-time, two-thirds vote in each chamber of the state legislature in 2024 or thereafter to pass a spending plan for revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases. This was intended as a poison pill against high speed rail and it went down in flames.
This should help prospects for extending the cap and trade system beyond 2030, as the latest California high speed rail business plan suggests.
The other big news is that Gavin Newsom is poised to become the next governor of California – though he first has to get through California’s own version of Donald Trump, Republican John Cox.
Newsom said the high-speed rail, a controversial topic in the Central Valley, will anchor economic development in its first phase: San Joaquin Valley to the Silicon Valley.
Newsom has long been a proponent of the project, but said he’s been a critic of the past business plans until the most recent one, which he called “honest.”
The rail’s newest CEO, Brian Kelly, is the “right person at the right time,” to continue moving the project forward, Newsom said.
I can live with this. I wish Newsom hadn’t said what he said in 2014, but he was a supporter of HSR before that, and is an HSR supporter today. And that support will be essential in the face of the challenge presented by Cox.
California is a strongly Democratic state and it is not likely that it would elect a Republican governor. But it is possible. As the U.S. learned again in 2016, and as the province of Ontario may learn tomorrow, we should never discount the potential strength of a right-wing demagogue. California has its problems, including high housing costs. And while the CA GOP is a dying party, their base may well view the 2018 election as their last stand – and they will likely turn out in big numbers to try and stave off permanent minority status.
Cox will surely ramp up his attacks on HSR – and as I’ll get to in a moment, transportation is going to be a major part of the CA GOP’s 2018 campaign. Newsom will have to own the project anyway, so he might as well embrace it and offer a strong defense.
The news from the state’s Congressional races is good, as Democrats appear to have avoided a top two shutout in all but one district (CA-8, and things there are still close). This puts Democrats on course to win back control of the U.S. House in November, which would go a long way toward reopening the possibility of federal funding for the HSR project.
The storm cloud on the night was the successful recall of State Senator Josh Newman in a district straddling the LA/OC border. Republicans targeted Newman because he was an unexpected winner in 2016 who gave Democrats a 2/3 majority in the State Senate. Newman voted for the gas tax increase, which Democrats have done a poor job defending. And without a strong campaign to rally voters to save Newman, he got recalled.
This produces two problems. The first is that without a working 2/3 majority in the Senate, Democrats won’t be getting much done between now and November. The second is that Republicans will be emboldened to run against the gas tax everywhere in the state, jeopardizing important transportation projects.
Democrats will need to get serious about either defending the gas tax, or finding some other way to address voter concerns. One obvious move would be to cut the gas tax by some small amount while offsetting it by raising taxes somewhere else – such as on large polluters.
So overall it was a good election for California’s HSR project, as they all have been since 2008 (at least on the state level). If Newsom wins, if Democrats retake a 2/3 majority, and if Democrats retake Congress, then the HSR project may well have made it through its most challenging times.
In two weeks Californians will go to the polls in the primary election that will, among other things, decide who the next governor will be. Chances are pretty strong that next governor will be a Democrat, and the Democrat with the best chance is still Gavin Newsom.
Ralph Vartabedian is upset that HSR hasn’t figured into the gubernatorial race but that’s likely because the issue is static. Californians have generally made up their minds and those minds have been made up for the last 10 years. Poll numbers on HSR have not moved much since November 2008.
At some point the state is going to have to get serious about sustainable infrastructure spending, on top of and above the amounts in the cap-and-trade system. Extending that system to 2050 or beyond, as the California High Speed Rail Authority correctly wants legislators to approve, would help provide a stable source of funds. But they could turn to other sources too, including bond debt. Lots of options remain available, as they have over the last decade.
In the ten years since this blog was founded and since Californians approved HSR, China has built out a massive HSR network while Sacramento political leaders dither – but they at least haven’t tried to kill it the way their Congressional colleagues have. At some point we will all look back at these delays as a pathetic sign of American decline and decay. Dissertations will be written on how the CA HSR project embodies the slow collapse of American civilization as everyone found excuses to not build a project that makes a massive amount of economic and environmental sense.
But those are the reflections that come after current events become history. Right now, HSR construction is still a current event. That is quite an achievement given how many people have spent the last ten years trying to kill HSR – and have never stopped trying, and will never stop trying. But we endure.