California’s High-Speed Rail Decision is Prudent Politics


Author  Sean Jeans-Gail

The United States is incapable of building big things.

That is an uncomfortable thing to say about the country you’re from, but in the year 2019 it is an undeniable truth.

In that light, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that his administration would be narrowing the project’s scope—refocusing on the Central Valley spine between Merced and Bakersfield—may be vexing to advocates, but it’s just good politics.

[Read Rail Passengers’ statement on Gov. Newsom’s announcement.]

The project has been beset by outside difficulties and poor internal management: a series of lawsuits by NIMBYs and environmental groups (the latter of whom should know better); an indifferent federal partner in Congress, including an actively hostile contingent within the GOP segment of California’s congressional delegation; a poorly chosen corridor, selected to win political support from Central Valley cities afraid they would be left stranded in favor of the state’s twin economic behemoths, Los Angeles and the Bay Area (and let’s be honest, there’s plenty of historical precedent underpinning that fear). If you want a full rundown of everything that went wrong, Jeff Davis at Eno Transportation has a fair—albeit incomplete—summary of the avoidable mistakes.

Faced with these obstacles, none of which he created and most of which were beyond his ability to solve, Gov. Newsom made the politically sensible decision to adjust the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CAHSRA) focus to the only segment currently under construction. It eases worries in the state legislature and among the public that the project is spiraling out of control and brings a finish line within touching distance.

And despite the headlines you may have read, the Governor demonstrated clear and unequivocal support for increasing passenger rail service in the state.

“We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for [California],” Gov. Newsom wrote yesterday in a series of tweets. “We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will continue our regional projects north and south. Finish Phase 1 [environmental] work. Connect the Central Valley to other parts of the state. For those who want to walk away: Abandoning high speed rail means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it. I’m not interested in sending $3.5B in federal funding—exclusively allocated for HSR—back to the White House. This is so much more than a train project. It’s a transformation project. Anchored by high-speed rail, we can align our economic, workforce, and transportation strategies to revitalize communities across our state.”

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