Gov. Gavin Newsom Pivots on Water Tunnels, High-Speed Rail in First State of the State Address

Gov. Gavin Newsom gives his first State of the State address on Feb. 12, 2019. (Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio)

Gov. Gavin Newsom said his administration will change course on two major state infrastructure projects, announcing Tuesday that he does not think the state should be focused on building a high-speed rail line that connects Los Angeles and San Francisco and that he favors one, not two, water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The comments during Newsom's first State of the State speech portend a decidedly different approach to the controversial projects than those of Newsom's predecessors, and raise significant questions about the future of both. Newsom made clear in the speech that he will not abandon high-speed rail altogether, but wants his administration to focus on completing the Central Valley portion of the line for now.

Newsom promised to "continue to push for more federal funding and federal dollars," adding: "But let's just get something done."

Less clear is what his change of course on the Delta tunnels will mean for that project.

The new governor had made national news just one day earlier, when he announced he would pull National Guard troops from the U.S.-Mexico border in defiance of President Trump.

In Tuesday's sweeping, 43-minute speech, Newsom reiterated that rebuke of Trump — but quickly moved on to issues closer to home. He announced proposals to tackle some of the state's most pressing problems, including housing and homelessness, the lack of clean drinking water, education funding, health care costs and the state's changing workforce.

Newsom also said that 1 million Californians are plagued by water contaminated by lead, arsenic and uranium, and called for a solution; said he would propose a strategy for dealing with the bankrupt utility, PG&E, within 60 days; called for more education spending and accountability in schools; said he would appoint a new commission on homelessness, chaired by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and put $500 million into emergency shelters around the state.

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He called for exemptions to the state's stringent environmental laws to help spur more housing development, and also urged the Legislature to pass laws that will help renters stay in their homes.

"The problems we face are as hard as they come, and decades in the making," Newsom told an Assembly chamber packed with lawmakers. "But I truly believe we have the tools to solve them. We have the technology, and the know-how. Most importantly, we have the generosity of our people."

But it was Newsom's comments on the two controversial and expensive public works projects that attracted the most attention.

It's not entirely clear what the Delta tunnel decision means for the future of the water project. The $19 billion project has already undergone a decade-long permitting process that might have to start from square one if it's changed that dramatically.

On both rail and water, Newsom's positions are a marked departure from his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, who embraced and championed both the rail and water projects.

"Let's be real," Newsom said about the rail project. "The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There's been too little oversight and not enough transparency."

Newsom said there is simply not a financial path to construct a high-speed rail train from Sacramento to San Diego, or San Francisco to Los Angeles — but made clear he will not abandon the construction already underway in the Central Valley to connect Merced and Bakersfield.

"Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it," he said. "And by the way, I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump."

Watch Gov. Gavin Newsom's Feb. 12, 2019 State of the State address below (Newsom is introduced at approximately 21:10).

Instead, Newsom pledged a new, more transparent and efficient approach to the project — including posting invoices and receipts online — and named his economic development director, Lenny Mendonca, as the next chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

"I know that some critics will say this is a 'train to nowhere.' But that’s wrong and offensive. The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America, as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better," he said. "High-speed rail is much more than a train project. It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley."

Newsom began the speech as expected — tackling what he called the "fearmongering from the White House about the so-called emergency at our border," and pledging to stand up for those who are "maligned, marginalized and scapegoated."

But after just a few minutes talking about the White House, Newsom pivoted to talk about the challenges facing California and how he wants to tackle them.

He announced several appointments to key boards: In addition to Mendonca, he named Joaquin Esquivel as chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, ousting longtime chair Felicia Marcus.

And he named Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond as chair of the powerful state Education Board. Darling-Hammond is a well-known education researcher who has supported many of Brown's education policies and is expected to continue to build on them.

In addition to naming Mendoca and Steinberg to new positions, Newsom also announced that former California first lady and longtime journalist Maria Shriver will lead a new task force on Alzheimer's prevention and preparedness.

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