Updated 10:45 p.m.
In his first State of the State speech on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to scale back California’s bullet train, one of his predecessors’ signature projects.
“Let’s be real: The current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long,” Newsom said of the $77 billion high-speed rail line that voters first approved in 2008, when the projected cost was $33 billion. The project’s price tag at one point approached $100 billion.
Specifically, the governor proposed delaying construction of a train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco — let alone the larger goal of Sacramento to San Diego — and instead focus on a route between the smaller Central Valley cities of Bakersfield and Merced. He acknowledged critics would ding this move as a “train to nowhere, but I think that’s wrong and I think that’s offensive.”
“Let’s get something done once and for all,” he said, arguing the Central Valley should not be left out of the project’s “economic transformation.”
One of the nation’s most powerful Republicans signaled an openness to Newsom’s announcement.
“I look forward to working w/ Governor Newsom and federal officials in the coming weeks to best mitigate what has already been wasted on high-speed rail due to the previous Administration,” tweeted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).
I look forward to working w/ Governor Newsom and federal officials in the coming weeks to best mitigate what has already been wasted on high-speed rail due to the previous Administration.— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) February 12, 2019
But other Republicans scorned the governor for trying to have it both ways.
“He admitted it has been a failure, but he committed to keep spending billions on the failed project” by changing it to “a Central Valley commuter train,” state Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula) said in a statement. “That's not what people were promised, and the project should be killed outright.”
Newsom’s announcement seemed to confuse supporters and critics alike, prompting his administration to clarify that the Central Valley segment’s prioritization does not mean the abandonment of the entire project.
“Importantly, [the governor] also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our ‘bookend’ investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion,” California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly said in a statement.
And in a tweet, the governor’s chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, said Newsom “fully committed to high speed rail as part of All in California economic transformation, and clean energy future.”
Governor Newsom fully committed to high speed rail as part of All in California economic transformation, and clean energy future. https://t.co/XVDpbZjR8N— Ann O'Leary (@Ann_OLeary) February 12, 2019
In his address — which lasted nearly 45 minutes, more than twice the length of the average State of the State speech by former governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger — he also signaled support for a single Delta tunnel. It’s a reduction of former Gov. Brown’s vision for two tunnels along the Sacramento River that would transfer water to Southern California, but one already under consideration during the waning weeks of the Brown administration.
“The status quo is not an option,” the governor said of the contentious project. “Our collective effort must be to cross the finish line on real agreements to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta.”
Newsom’s speech touched on a variety of other key issues, from how to combat the state’s surge in wildfires and deal with the bankruptcy of its largest utility in PG&E, to rethinking how California funds its public schools and expanding health-care coverage.
And Newsom wasted no time in criticizing what he called President Trump’s “fear-mongering” over the “so-called ‘border emergency’” as a “manufactured crisis” and “political theater.”
“The answer to the White House, with all due respect: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism,” he said, one day after signing an order removing most California National Guard troops from the Mexican border.
The governor also criticized the White House on health care as “laser-focused — has been for years — on destroying the Affordable Care Act,” blaming the end of the individual mandate to purchase insurance coverage for a sharp increase in premiums on California’s state-run health care exchange.
Newsom wants to create a state individual mandate, using the money it raises to expand subsidies on the exchange to middle-class Californians. He also wants to expand California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, to immigrants under age 26 living in the state illegally. (California children are already covered, regardless of immigration status.)
But the only time the governor mentioned Trump’s name was to praise him.
“I want to thank President Trump for calling attention to prescription drug prices last week in his State of the Union,” Newsom said, noting he’s ordered his administration to begin working toward a single-purchasing system that he argues will cut costs.
“This is a bipartisan issue — at least it should be — and I hope he follows through, and takes the lead of California in the process,” he said.
On housing, there was wide support for the governor’s call to streamline California’s environmental review law that critics say impedes development projects.
“In recent years, we’ve done a good job expediting judicial review on CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] for professional sports,” he said, to scattered applause. The cheers were much louder when he added: “But it’s time to do the same thing for housing.”
Newsom’s speech drew broad praise from Democrats.
“What he’s mentioned, you’re going to have any number of partners in the Legislature, whether it’s the Assembly or Senate, willing to step forward and work with him to get it done,” said Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat.
Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron of Escondido praised Newsom’s words on several issues, including housing, mental health and water. But she questioned the feasibility of the scaled-back high-speed rail segment in the Central Valley.
“How are they going to get the ridership levels if they don’t have the San Francisco corridor as part of that?” she asked. “Because I think that was where they were looking to get the ridership.”
Newsom ended his address with the story of registered nurse Allyn Pierce, who braved the flames of the Camp Fire in Paradise to help treat and evacuate patients from the town’s hospital.
“Taking care of each other, showing courage when it matters most — this is what we do in California,” the governor said after recognizing Pierce in the Assembly gallery. “Yes, we have much left to do, but I believe in the remarkable talent assembled here, and I believe in our state. And I know this, in the bottom of my heart: The best is yet to come.”