Slower high-speed rail?

It sounds crazy, but a presidential rant on Twitter may have forced Gov. Gavin Newsom to “clarify”—actually, backtrack—his position on California’s high-speed rail.

“The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long,” the governor said of the state’s high-speed rail plan in his State of the State address Feb. 12. He pledged to complete a Central Valley (Merced to Bakersfield) route and take a hard look at the rest of the route.

“Right now,” he said, “there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA. I wish there were.”

That sent some reporters and politicians scrambling to social media to write the train’s obituary.

WIth the latest price tag approaching $80 billion, nearly double original estimates and more than eight times the $9 billion authorized by California voters in 2008, the governor’s statement seemed to make sense—until daily newspaper headlines and local officials, even President Donald Trump, assumed that Newsom’s comments meant that the project was dead.

It turns out that initial reports of the death of High-Speed Rail were greatly exaggerated.

There, in fact, was more in the speech. The governor then gave a politically ambiguous “on-the-other-hand’ remark, saying that, “Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it. And by the way, I am not interested in sending (back) $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project.”

The day after the State of State remarks, Trump called on California to return $3.5 billion in federal funds that had been provided for the high-speed rail system. He tweeted, “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the federal government 3½ billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”

As is often the case, the President got it wrong, not unlike many California politicians.

Newsom responded the next day with his own tweet: “Fake news. We’re building high-speed rail, connecting the Central Valley and beyond. This is California’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back. The train is leaving the station—better get on board! (Also, desperately searching for some wall $$??)”

Newsom’s attempt at clarification has left most of the state wondering where we go from here.

After the State of the State, a Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click gave assurances that his boss wanted to “refocus” and “reprioritize” funding, to enable the Central Valley plan to be completed. But he added his own on-the-other-hand comment, that “the state will continue undertaking the broader project—completing the bookend projects and finishing the environmental review for the SF to LA leg—that would allow the project to continue seeking other funding streams.”

Proposition 1A in 2008 said the high-speed train would need to move at a speed of at least 200 mph and connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2⅔ hours. Construction of the Fresno-to-Madera portion of the rail system began four years ago.

The high-speed rail folks are trying to say there really has been no change of plan, saying the governor “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.”

That didn’t help. These high-speed rail waters continue to be as muddy as a creek after a winter rain.

A high-speed rail connection in Gilroy could be a lifesaver for the city’s downtown. It also could provide an important new commuter option for northbound workers in San Benito County.

At this point, however, the “train to nowhere” label will linger as long as both the funding and the plans remain in limbo. More clarity, governor; more clarity, please.

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