Feb. 15, 2019 – A serious debate could had over whether it makes sense to build a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Proponents would argue that it is “greener” than cars and planes, and is necessary in light of projected population growth. Opponents would argue that getting from LA to SF is not Californians’ problem (it is cheap and fast via plane); our problem is getting from home to work. But no one would seriously attempt to argue that it makes sense to build a bullet train from Bakersfield to Merced. (Such a project sounds like a punch line of a Johnny Carson joke!) No one, except apparently, our Governor.
In his State of the State speech this week he was quite clear: he intends to build such a train, even though “there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.” (OK maybe not so clear; the proper phrasing is “San Francisco to L.A., let alone Sacramento to San Diego.” Perhaps I am nitpicking, but on the other hand it is a State of the State speech, presumably vetted by Newsom and numerous others, and thus disconcerting that such an obvious error could be made by the Governor and his staff.) If there is no such path, why continue to blow taxpayer money on this project? Why not halt it until there is such a path?! Apparently, our Governor truly believes that a bullet train from Bakersfield to Merced is a good idea! That is scary. In his lame attempt to justify such an absurd project, Newsom creates a red herring: criticizing anyone who would dare label the project a “train to nowhere.” That, he states, is “offensive.” He does not address opponents who may label it another way, say, “the dumbest infrastructure project in the history of the United States.”
Of course, building the scaled back train only potentially makes sense if it is the first part of a train from SF to LA. This is no doubt why Newsom has been back peddling since the announcement, claiming now that he has every intention of attempting to complete the project. But he cannot walk back this statement: “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long.” If this is the case, why keep building?! Doing so is clearly illegal. He is using funds which voters approved in 2008 to build a train “linking Southern California counties, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area.” Voters were also told the project would cost $33 billion. Revised estimates have put the cost two to three times higher.
Perhaps Newsom showed his hand as to the real reason he wants to build the Bakersfield to Merced leg: politics. “I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump,” he said in the speech. In his subsequent tweet, he further politicized the issue, questioning whether Trump was demanding the money back because he is “desperately searching for some wall $$??” The problem is that California’s own auditor determined that the project will miss the completion deadline of December 2022 under the federal grant “unless Central Valley construction progresses twice as fast as it has to date.” Newsom did not pledge to double the speed of construction, probably because he knows it is not possible. But by continuing to build, he at least delays the State’s repayment of the federal funds until 2022, when, he hopes, Trump will no longer be in the White House.
A Governor motivated by politics over sound policy: Not what California needs.
Jim Breslo is an attorney and host of the podcast “Hidden Truth: Train to Nowhere”