Political Notebook

Valley mayors hopeful after meeting with Newsom on high-speed rail, economic growth

Gov. Gavin Newsom met privately with the mayors of Fresno, Merced and Bakersfield on Wednesday to clarify his vision of high-speed rail, which Newsom said in an interview after the meeting very much still included a Valley-to-Valley vision.

The trip came just a day after Newsom ignited headlines by announcing the scaling back of the state’s multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project during his State of the State address. The governor expressed confidence in a rail line between Merced and Bakersfield being completed, but said that the money and plans necessary to build from Sacramento to San Diego or even San Francisco to Los Angeles simply was not there.

Two of the mayors said Wednesday they were pleased with Newsom’s honesty and willingness to meet with three San Joaquin Valley Republicans and speak frankly about the project’s future.

Shortly after their meeting, Newsom told The Bee he was confident the Merced to Bakersfield line would not only be completed by 2027, but that it would also connect to Silicon Valley at some point after.

“It was just interesting reading the headlines,” Newsom said. “They were actually different than a lot of the articles, but the headlines were a little bit – aggressive.”

Many news outlets reported Newsom’s statements as death knell for the project.

“Look, my whole point is to get this project back on track,” Newsom said. “We’re way over our estimates in terms of costs and timelines, and people are frustrated. And people have a right to be not just frustrated but angry about it.”

Contrasting Newsom and Brown

At an earlier news conference in Parlier, Newsom was asked if he had spoken to former Gov. Jerry Brown, who long championed high-speed rail in his eight years in office, about his decisions for the project. He said he had not, but that he imagined Brown would be “enthusiastic because I actually want to get something done.”

“We had this buckshot approach in the past where a lot was happening and nothing was happening,” he continued. “We were investing here and there and at the end, we were going to be out of money with quite literally nothing to show for it except for angst, frustration and finger-pointing.”

Newsom said after meeting with the mayors that he sought to be “honest and sober” about high-speed rail’s future.

“Right now, it’s a project – with the money that we’ve identified – that can be completed between Merced and Bakersfield,” he said. “At the same time, we can anchor the future by concurrently doing the environmental work to get it Valley to Valley and ultimately make a case, once it’s completed here in 2027, for the private sector and the federal government to get it down to Los Angeles.”

The Merced to Bakersfield project can be completed with the $9.95 billion left in the bond and filled out by cap-and-trade, Newsom said. He was not concerned at all by a probable federal audit or by the possibility of federal or state money being reclaimed.

When asked if the project was simply going to be “Amtrak 2.0,” Newsom said a train was more than just conveyance. It would create economic stimulus and lead to a rebranding for the Valley.

If Valley to Valley high-speed rail somehow does not work out, Newsom said, there will be existing infrastructure to connect the line through the Altamont Corridor Express.

“I want people to remember things are happening in Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield,” Newsom said. “A lot of people in California consider these a drive-by or a flyover or only an ag story, but there’s so much more.”

Commitment to Fresno

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand said Newsom promised Brand he would return to the Valley when the two first met two months ago. He thanked the governor for keeping his word, and promised to hold Newsom to his assurances – dates, cost estimates, and so on – for the Merced to Bakersfield project.

“Unlike Merced and Bakersfield, Fresno has been ground zero for the high-speed rail,” Brand said. “We’ve had this town ripped apart and torn apart. And we cannot leave this town in that condition. Whether the train ever travels a mile, we have to be made whole. And he made that commitment.”

Newsom promised a business-like accountability for project funds – down to the cost of wine ordered at dinner, if need be – that Brand said he appreciated and was lacking in the previous project.

Brand said he was grateful for the economic benefits the project has already had in Fresno, including costly infrastructure upgrades the city would not have been able to afford otherwise. However, he stated the project has very little value to the area if it does not eventually connect to Silicon Valley.

Connection to Bay Area

“This will do no good if it’s only from Bakersfield to Merced,” Brand said. “The connection to Silicon Valley and San Francisco benefits the entire Valley.”

Asked if he bought into the idea that the Merced to Bakersfield project would be transformative on its own, as Newsom suggested during Tuesday’s State of the State address and Wednesday’s news conferences, Brand expressed his doubts.

“It’s nice to connect to UC Merced, Fresno State and Bakersfield, but ultimately that’s not going to be a profitable model,” Brand said.

Brand said Lenny Mendonca, Newsom’s economic development director and the new chair of the High-Speed Rail Authority, will visit Fresno in a few weeks to share more specifics on the project and reiterate the state’s commitment.

Fresno, Madera and Bakersfield were each finalists for a highly sought-after high-speed rail maintenance yard, but Brand said Newsom made no promises on that end. The mayor imagines any such yard would be scaled back considerably, with the possibility of expansion should Valley to Valley get the green light.

Merced welcomes new openness

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said the meeting was an indication that Newsom is serious about making greater investments in the Central Valley.

“All three of the mayors shared with him the importance of showing up and being present in the Central Valley,” Murphy said. “This is the fifth meeting with him in five months. That’s not the relationship that I had with Gov. (Jerry) Brown. That’s not the relationship any of the mayors had.”

Merced and its leadership under Murphy in the past three years have fought to keep Merced in the plans for the bullet train. Merced was taken out of the plan for about three months in 2016 until area leaders like Murphy and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, made their disappointment clear to the rail authority.

Critics have said Merced has a number of kinks that need to be worked out before a station could be erected in the town, where no high-speed rail construction has begun. Early plans have the station going in at 16th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where a number of businesses could be displaced.

Murphy said Wednesday’s discussion focused on the larger footprint and its potential benefits for the Valley.

To ensure the success of high-speed rail, it’s important to connect the ACE train, which goes over the Altamont Pass to the Bay Area, to Merced, he said.

“We shared the importance of having ridership that’s beyond Bakersfield to Merced,” he said. “(Newsom) understands and is supportive of that, from what I heard.”

Cutting out huge population centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco adds a hurdle for the rail authority to clear in finding ridership, critics say.

One such critic was President Donald Trump, who tweeted Wednesday night that California was canceling its bullet train project after it had “wasted many billions of dollars.” He claimed the project owed the federal government $3.5 billion, and “we want that money back now.”

Newsom fired back, tweeting that the state was building high-speed rail “connecting the Valley and beyond.” He claimed the money in question was allocated by Congress and already belonged to California.

“The train is leaving the station – better get on board!” the tweet said.

Merced Sun-Star reporter Thaddeus Miller contributed to this report.
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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.