Opinion

Will Newsom’s plans for train and tunnels fix problems – or just create new ones?

Gov. Gavin Newsom: ‘Let’s level about the high-speed rail’

Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.
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Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.

In his first State of the State speech, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed two of his predecessor’s top priorities on the scrapheap of history. Within the space of a few paragraphs, he rendered vain all of Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to preserve expansive versions of both the California High-Speed Rail project and the twin Delta tunnels.

Newsom appeared to end the dream of a San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail train, saying “there is no path.” The line drew applause from the project’s opponents, but their joy was short-lived. Newsom will instead work to complete a route between Merced and Bakersfield.

“Let’s be real,” said Newsom. “ The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long.”

Newsom preemptively blasted critics who might call his new limited version a “train to nowhere,” calling the suggestion “offensive.”

“Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield, and communities in between are more dynamic than many realize,” he said.

True, but how many will ride the limited line? What will tickets cost? What new challenges does this major turnabout create?

Brown’s twin Delta tunnels also took a hit from Newsom’s ax. Just as he downsized Brown’s train, Newsom also announced plans to reduce the water project to only one tunnel. The move will likely translate into further delays for the controversial project.

“The announcement likely means the project would require a fresh set of environmental reviews before it can proceed, translating into additional delays for a project that’s been in the planning stage for more than a decade and will take an estimated 15 years to build,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow.

At the same time, ditching one tunnel “would almost certainly save billions of dollars for a project, which carries a current price tag of $16.7 billion, that’s had trouble achieving full funding,” according to The Bee.

By shrinking these massive infrastructure projects, Newsom may be saving money, but it’s not clear whether he’ll escape – or only intensify – the headaches. His speech was light on details.

But he did make it clear he’ll tackle a challenge even Brown ducked: reforming the landmark California Environmental Quality Act, which requires strict environmental impact reviews for projects. Many environmentalists and labor unions have strongly opposed the idea of changing the law.

“I also want to acknowledge other factors beyond city planning that have limited our ability to provide housing,” said Newsom. “In recent years, we’ve expedited judicial review on CEQA for professional sports. It’s time we do the same thing for housing.”

Those are fighting words. As Gov. Brown said in an interview with UCLA’s Blueprint Magazine: “The unions won’t let you because they use it as a hammer to get project labor agreements. The environmentalists like it because it’s the people’s document that you have to disclose all the impacts. And, of course, the developers have a problem because ‘impact,’ boy, that’s a big word. Everything’s an impact. I pound on the table, that’s an impact [pounding on the table]. You know what I mean?”

Other highlights from Newsom’s speech:

Expanding Medi-Cal coverage to all Californians up to the age of 26, “regardless of their immigration status”

Implementing an “individual mandate” for healthcare coverage in California

Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to a million more families

“Sustained funding” to provide clean drinking water to Californians who lack it

Newsom mentioned the word “tax,” in one form or another, only three times in the speech. Most interesting: He introduced the idea of a “data dividend” to give consumers a cut of the billions of dollars tech companies rake in by harvesting and selling our data. The mere mention of the idea may have been enough to wobble tech stocks.

“[Google parent company]Alphabet shares gave up some gains in New York trading, while Facebook turned negative, following Newsom’s comments,” according to Bloomberg.

As with most of the items mentioned in the speech, we’ll have to wait for details. But while trimming down some of Brown’s biggest and most contentious projects, it appears Newsom is readying a few of his own.

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