Newsom Pulls Plug, at Least for Now, on S.F. to L.A. High-Speed Rail Link

Worker on part of the California high-speed rail route under construction in late 2016 near Fresno. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Updated 3:55 p.m. Tuesday
This report contains a clarification.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday he's shelving a plan to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco -- while still suggesting a statewide bullet-train network could be completed someday.

"Let's be real," Newsom said in his first State of the State address. "The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There's been too little oversight and not enough transparency."

He added: "Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were."

The idea long championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown is years behind schedule. The latest estimate for completion of the project, now with a projected cost of $77 billion, is 2033.

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Newsom said he wants to continue construction of a 150-mile high-speed link from Merced to Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley. He says completing the line, which broke ground several years ago, could bring economic and quality-of-life benefits to a region he said had "suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento."

Answering high-speed rail opponents, who have demanded the state simply cancel what they characterize as an expensive boondoggle, Newsom said simply walking away from the project would require the state to return $3.5 billion in federal dollars.

The governor did leave open the possibility that the Central Valley portion will someday be connected to destinations in Northern and Southern California.

"Look, we will continue our regional projects north and south," Newsom said. "We’ll finish Phase 1 environmental work. We’ll connect the revitalized Central Valley to other parts of the state, and continue to push for more federal funding and private dollars. But let’s just get something done."

Reaction to Newsom's announcement was mixed.

San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener, a high-speed rail and transit proponent, said on Twitter during the speech he believed Newsom had actually made a commitment to building the L.A.-S.F. rail link.

But Rebecca Saltzman, a BART board member from Berkeley, called Newsom's announcement "very concerning" and that the governor's future intentions were "unclear."

The bullet-train project was created in 2008 by Proposition 1A, a $10 billion bond meant to fund initial planning, engineering and construction of an 800-mile high-speed rail network connecting San Diego and Los Angeles to the Bay Area and Sacramento.

The vision was for a project that would attract substantial private investment. But that private interest was slow to materialize, and meantime, the project has been beset by numerous court challenges and resistance from communities and landowners who would be impacted by the bullet train's construction and operations.

Two major Bay Area transportation projects are intimately tied to the high-speed rail project.

Caltrain, the commuter rail line from Santa Clara County to San Francisco, is using state high-speed rail money along with federal grants and other funds for a $2 billion project to electrify and modernize its service. Planning for high-speed rail has assumed that future bullet trains would use the Caltrain route into San Francisco.

Caltrain noted in a statement after Newsom's address that the state is providing nearly $900 million to the modernization project -- about 80 percent of that coming from the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The project, which includes buying new cars, is scheduled to be completed in 2022.

The Caltrain and bullet train routes have been envisioned as terminating at the Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco.

Planning is underway for a tunnel that would allow the trains to run under Mission Bay and South of Market to the center, where preliminary construction for underground rail platforms has already taken place. Current estimates put the overall cost of the extension at $6 billion, with completion in 2027.

Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and public affairs for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said Newsom's announcement was a surprise. He said that a statewide bullet-train network still made sense and will come together "in incremental segments" -- much like the nation's interstate highway system did.

"High-speed rail is very important to the Bay Area," Rentschler said. "For high-speed rail to work, unlike airports, it's got to connect a transit-rich community like the Bay Area with a transit-rich community like Los Angeles. That's the end game."

Clarification: This story originally stated that Gov. Gavin Newsom had "abandoned" and "pulled the plug on" a high-speed rail connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The original copy has been edited to reflect the governor's further remarks that such a line might be completed in the future.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.

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