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Is California’s bullet train still on track?

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The pergola in the San Joaquin River Viaduct will allow California’s high-speed rail to cross over the Union Pacific tracks at the south end of Fresno. Photo credit: Avishay Artsy. Photo credit: Avishay Artsy.

Is high speed rail dead?

In his first State of the State address yesterday, Governor Newsom said, “Let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.  Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA. I wish there were.”

He appears to be saying we should focus on the Central Valley portion of the project first, and increase transparency and accountability. But he’s leaving a lot of room for interpretation. Essentially very little has changed from Jerry Brown’s plan. Republicans are celebrating Newsom’s move, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeting "The train to nowhere is finally stopped.”

But by Tuesday afternoon, Newsom's office confirmed that he is fully committed to completing the high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One big change is that he’s replacing High Speed Rail Authority chairman Dan Richard with his own economic development director, Lenny Mendonca.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “the only concrete near-term item he is dropping is a commitment to electrify commuter train service from Gilroy to San Jose, which the state had wanted to pursue with any surplus funds left from the Central Valley.”

What challenges has the bullet train been facing?

Well, voters approved a $10 billion bond in 2008 to start construction on the rail line. The latest estimate has it at about $77 billion to be completed in 2033, and guesses are it could top $100 billion in costs.

A contributor to the cost overruns and budget delays has been the difficulty in assembling the parcels of land to build. That’s due to pushback and long drawn out negotiations with farmers whose land is getting sliced up by tracks.

Then you have concerns over a lack of transparency, as the governor alluded to.

So if these have been going on the whole time, why scale back now?

This has been Jerry Brown’s pet project and he wanted to keep the train on course, so to speak.

How much has already been built?

We visited the Central Valley construction site last year and were shown around by Diana Gomez. She’s the Central Valley Regional Director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority and is overseeing the 119 mile stretch that is currently under construction from Madera to north of Bakersfield. She showed us the viaduct under construction at the south end of Fresno and the pergola over the San Joaquin River at the north end.

At the time she told us buoyantly, “We're constructing overpasses, underpasses. We have a trench we're constructing bridges, viaducts... All you have to do is drive along State Route 99 and you can see all of the construction.”

If only the Central Valley portion is completed, is that a total loss?

The Fresno folks were more excited about getting to LA and San Francisco than just getting between Bakersfield and Merced. This is not the optimal outcome. But Newsom hasn’t ruled out completing the north or south legs of the train. And, officially locals say the train is still on track.

When we were in Fresno last year we interviewed Lee Ann Eager, head of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, who’s a big proponent of the rail line. We went back to her for a response and she wrote by e-mail:

Governor Newsom’s plan for the California High Speed Rail project has not changed.  He wants to complete the first operating segment from Bakersfield to Merced and then as soon as additional funds are located – will finalize the northern section on to San Francisco.  He understands the importance of the “Valley to Valley” connection.

Do people even want a high-speed rail line between Merced and Bakersfield?

One of the presumed outcomes of the high speed rail is that more people would move to the Central Valley and then commute south and north. So it would fulfil that demand.

As to when it would pay off, many rail projects don’t ever fully pay off; they invariably require government subsidy. But countries and cities that build high-speed rail consider it an economic investment. Americans tend to subsidize roads over trains. Or air transit.