‘Let’s be real.’ Gavin Newsom says he’ll cut back on California’s high-speed rail plan

Gov. Gavin Newsom used the spotlight of his first State of the State speech to rebuke the president, halve his predecessor’s marquee water project and put the brakes on the multi-billion dollar high speed rail project that Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a decade ago.

He invoked his father’s difficult final years as he called for a state master plan on aging, and asked former First Lady Maria Shriver to lead an effort to combat Alzheimer’s. He put Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg in charge of a new state commission on homelessness.

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Toni Atkins called it the “most newsworthy” State of the State speech in memory.

“Let’s be real,” the new Democratic governor said as he announced a scaled-back plan for high speed rail. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

Newsom’s 45-minute speech reflected a recurring theme of his first month in office: His desire to emphasize health care and housing while keeping the state budget in the black.

In a change to a project voters first approved with a $10 billion bond during the Schwarzenegger administration, Newsom said there “simply isn’t a path” to build high speed rail to connect the northern and southern parts of the state without more funding. The project as originally designed now is estimated to cost at least $77 billion.

Instead, he called for focus on a section linking the Central Valley cities of Merced and Bakersfield, which he said have long been neglected by lawmakers.

“The Valley may be known around the world for agriculture, but there is another story ready to be told. A story of a region hungry for investment, a workforce eager for more training and good jobs, Californians who deserve a fair share of our state’s prosperity,” he said. “The high speed rail project can be part of that.”

He promised more oversight and transparency for the project, and announced he is appointing his economic development director, Lenny Mendonca, to chair the High Speed Rail Authority. The larger rail project isn’t dead. Newsom said the state will still complete an environmental review for the proposed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles and will continue work on regional projects in the north and the south of the state.

Newsom acknowledged critics who want the state to abandon the project entirely, but said he doesn’t want to waste the billions already spent on the project, nor does he want to return $3.5 billion the state has received in federal funding.

‘No more xenophobia’

Similarly, Newsom said he wants to downsize another long-running state infrastructure project that Gov. Jerry Brown favored. Brown advocated for a projected called California Water Fix, which called for two tunnels under the Delta to carry water south to farms and cities.

Newsom said he’d support only one tunnel.

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Newsom, who took office last month, also used his remarks to describe a state at odds with President Donald Trump on immigration. The governor described again an executive order he signed this week that withdraws hundreds of California National troops from the border, reassigning them to other tasks.

“This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism,” he said. “We suffered enough from that.”

Newsom’s message contradicted Trump, who traveled to El Paso this week to advocate for the border wall he promised during his 2016 campaign. Newsom argues the wall is unnecessary, contending the number of people living in the state illegally is at its lowest level in more than a decade.

Aging, homelessness

Rather than pricey canals and trains, Newsom signaled he’d prefer to use the state’s multi-billion dollar budget surplus for social services and housing.

Newsom encouraged Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to stand as he announced the mayor will lead a new state commission on homelessness and supportive housing.

“Our homelessness crisis has increasingly become a public health crisis,” he said. “I know mayors, county supervisors, and city councils all around the state are working hard to reduce homelessness and its underlying causes. We’ve got to have their backs.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first State of the State speech: Here’s what you need to know

Newsom told lawmakers they should propose legislation to stabilize rents “without putting small landlords out of business,” and said he would consider signing it.

He also called for a “master plan” to address the state’s aging population and its increasing health care needs. As part of that work, former First Lady Maria Shriver will lead a task force on Alzheimer’s prevention.

Advocates for schools were heartened by Newsom’s description of the stresses on their finances. The governor didn’t promise more money, but he acknowledged that many school districts are experiencing tight budgets despite a booming economy and rising tax revenue.

“It’s not enough. We’re still 41st in the nation in per pupil funding. Something needs to change. We need to have an honest conversation about how we fund our schools at a state and local level,” he said.

What his audience heard

The largely Democratic audience of state officials and lawmakers gave a standing ovation when Newsom criticized what he called Trump’s “political theater” over immigration. Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, waved her hands to show approval for Newsom’s plans to invest more in special education. Her office said she was using the American Sign Language gesture for applause.

Some Republicans praised the governor after the speech, especially for his approach to high speed rail.

But Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron said Republicans still took issue with his comments about immigration.

“Even if we remove the debate over illegal immigration, border security is still an issue,” the Escondido assemblywoman said.

There was an audible bipartisan disappointment when the governor announced his son, Dutch, who stole the show at his dad’s inaugural address, was not able to make it to the State of the State address.

One of the longest and enthusiastic rounds of applause came for Allyn Pierce, a nurse from Paradise who drove straight to the hospital after recording a goodbye video for his family during the fire last year that destroyed the town. He treated injured people and helped safely evacuate everyone when the hospital, too, caught fire.

“When he was asked why he did this – why he drove back through the fire when he could have saved himself – he shrugged and said, ‘This is what we do,’” Newsom said. “Allyn is right. Taking care of each other, showing courage when it matters most – this is what we do in California.”

Hannah Wiley and Maddy Ashmun contributed to this report.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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