Marek Warszawski

Newsom promised to ‘level’ about high-speed rail. He set heads spinning instead

“Let’s level about high-speed rail,” Gavin Newsom said during his first State of the State address as California’s governor.

Except Newsom didn’t level. He didn’t speak “frankly and directly” about this particular “tough call,” at least not to the degree necessary for a messaging shift of this magnitude. Which is why there is so much disagreement and confusion over what he said and what he meant.

This is one instance when the two needed to be in lockstep. Instead, Newsom spoke with a sporked tongue.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said. “The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. …

“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.”

When I heard those words in real time, two phrases stood out. “Let’s be real” implies that Newsom is about to deliver a dose of heavy truth. And heavy truth typically means bad news.

The second phrase that pricked up my ears was “Right now, there simply isn’t a path.” Which to me means bullet trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the original vision, aren’t happening. At least not under his watch.

No wonder that “Newsom cancels plans for bullet train” and “Newsom abandons high-speed rail” became headlines. And poo-pooers such as Fresno Assemblyman Jim Patterson proclaimed it “the last nail in the coffin.”

But, wait. Not so fast. Turns out Newsom didn’t actually mean the bullet train was going belly up.

What Newsom meant, as expressed in subsequent words and later on Twitter, is that the project was being pruned. A “high-speed rail link” (whatever that means) between Bakersfield and Merced will be seen through to completion, and after that we’ll see what comes next.

By Newsom’s timeline, the Bakersfield to Merced line will be completed by 2027. Coincidentally, that’s right around the time his time as governor is up — provided he gets re-elected.

After that, the coffers will be empty and private funding or federal money would be needed to advance the project to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Which then becomes the next governor’s problem, not his.

During his surprise visit to Parlier on Wednesday to sign a clean drinking water bill, Newsom groused that media got the story wrong. In particular the headlines, which he said “were a little bit — aggressive.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom chats with Riverview Elementary first-grader Juan Salcedo as to whether Newsom should sign AB 72, an early action budget bill that provides urgent assistance for communities that have contaminated and unsafe water. Newsom visited the school east of Parlier for his first bill signing on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. JOHN WALKER

Well, yeah. When you disseminate a confusing message, as Newsom did, you’re going to get a confused response. Especially in a six-word headline.

I understand the tightrope our new governor is walking. On one hand Newsom wants to bring order and accountability to a multibillion dollar project that has had little of either. On the other he doesn’t want to be seen as the guy who pulled the plug on something so visionary, not to mention desperately needed. Nor does he want to return $3.5 billion in federal stimulus money to Washington, D.C.

So Newsom did what politicians typically do in these situations. He spoke out of both sides of his mouth, leaving people to hear what they wanted.

High-speed rail opponents heard the governor finally lassoing, or even abandoning, a project that has gotten out of control. Proponents, on the other hand, heard a more pragmatic path forward.

If Newsom wants to blame someone for the confusion, then blame the person who wrote his speech. Not those of us who listened to his words, and tone, and weren’t sure how to reconcile the two.

“We had this buckshot approach in the past where a lot was happening and nothing was happening,” Newsom said Wednesday. “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.”

Here’s some news for you, Gavin. Even when the Bakersfield to Merced segment is completed, there will be those who still believe there will be nothing to show for two decades of work and more than $10 billion spent.

Many are high-speed rail supporters who voted in favor of the original bond. Those people voted for San Francisco to L.A. — not a bullet train that never leaves the San Joaquin Valley.

During his speech, Newsom also said high-speed rail is much more than a train project, “it’s about unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley.”

The problem is that cities like Fresno pinned their hopes on being connected to more prosperous areas of the state by trains traveling 220 mph. Now that those hopes have been dashed, or at least shelved, residents deserve a fuller explanation on how the truncated project accomplishes that goal.

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

Hard not to agree.

Newsom promised he was going to level about high-speed rail. Instead, he only gave us political slant.

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.