Three words change the fate of high-speed rail, and with it, the Valley’s future

Gov. Gavin Newsom: ‘Let’s level about the high-speed rail’

Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.
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Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.

“Let’s be real.” With those three words, Gov. Gavin Newsom brought a day of reckoning for California’s embattled high-speed rail project. Rather than connecting the Bay Area to Southern California via the Valley, the governor said the system will instead join Merced to Bakersfield.

The reasons? Lack of money and time. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long,” Newsom said Tuesday in his first State of the State speech. “There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

That was no doubt music to the ears of Valley GOP lawmakers who have steadfastly opposed HSR as an expensive boondoggle, sucking away precious public funding they wanted to go to other things, like raising dams in the Sierra foothills to capture more water for farmers. The irony is that a governor who they thought too liberal is the one who brought about this result.

Immediate reaction by some observers was that the governor was outright killing high-speed rail, a point he denied in subsequent social media posts.

To be sure, the reduced system shortchanges the Valley of high-speed access to California’s metropolitan centers, and for that reason, the decision is disappointing in the least.

That said, the ingenuity of Valley residents can still make something good out of a drastically scaled-back system, should it become operational.

High-speed rail was fully supported by former Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to get people out of cars and into electric trains that could travel 220 mph. Toward that end, California voters approved a $9.9 billion bond measure in 2008.

But since then, the costs have skyrocketed, and land acquisition in the Valley has proven more difficult than the rail authority expected.

To build 520 miles of rail from the Bay Area to Los Angeles would cost $77.3 billion, and that does not include a line to San Diego. Scale that down to Bay Area to Bakersfield, and the state would need $29.5 billion. Pare that further to Merced to Bakersfield, and the price is $10.6 billion.

“I have nothing but respect for Governor Brown’s and Governor Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision” for high-speed rail, Newsom said in his address “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.”

Being realistic, Newsom’s decision immediately changes the calculus of economic opportunity in the Valley. At least for the foreseeable future, short of private enterprise getting involved in helping build out the high-speed-rail system, new business opportunities in the central San Joaquin Valley tied to a train that runs from Fresno to San Francisco and Los Angeles will be shelved.

Valley real estate agents who might have been able to market nicely priced local homes to Silicon Valley employees and their families won’t have that chance now. Restauranteurs and retailers who might have wanted to capitalize on newcomers will have to rethink. And the effort to lure high-tech firms to set up operations in the Valley just got tougher.

Also unknown is the fate of the maintenance yard for the trains themselves. Several Valley cities, including Fresno, have been angling to be the home of that complex because of all the jobs it would bring. Now there will be fewer trains to maintain.

All that said, some good news from the governor is that the big projects now underway in the Fresno area — the bridge over the San Joaquin River, the undercrossing at Highway 180 and the overcrossing at Highway 99 and Cedar Avenue — will get finished. The 2,600 workers employed on those projects and others in the Valley will keep working.

And a Merced to Bakersfield line is not without use. Anyone who needs to travel in the Valley will be able to do so more quickly than on Amtrak. The line will act to connect UC Merced to Fresno State to Cal State Bakersfield, so perhaps students and faculty can find new ways to work together on research, such as in agriculture. And maybe new passengers from the South Valley and Kern County will book flights out of Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

When Newsom interviewed with The Bee’s Editorial Board during the campaign last fall, he pledged full support of high-speed rail, but also said he saw it as a “”Valley to Valley” project — Silicon Valley to the San Joaquin Valley. “I am committed to figure this out, and you will hear a governor who much more honest about what it is and isn’t feasible,” he said then.

On Tuesday, Newsom spoke three powerful words, and now the Valley faces a new reality.