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Solimar Research

High Speed Rail is Dead, Long Live High Speed Rail

Josh Stephens on
Feb 12, 2019

I tend to equate the creation of new cities with idealistic oddballs, overzealous autocrats, ambitious developing economies -- or all three. Think of Brasilia, Brazil; Shenzhen, China; or the proposed NEOM in Saudi Arabia. They are unusual places, developed under unusual circumstances. That’s why Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement to create a brand-new city in the mature democracy of California came as a shock to me. 

Don’t get me wrong. Newsom isn’t going to build out California City or plan the utopia of Jerrytropolis in Colusa County. In fact, he’s not building anything at all, at least not anything that isn’t already underway. 

Today in his state of the state address, Newsom didn’t exactly kill California's long-awaited high speed rail system — as some reports had indicated. Instead, he radically recast its purpose and reset its goals. 

With the self-consciously blunt, nearly Trumpian preface of “let’s be real," Newsom proclaimed that “the project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long….there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.” Instead of building the statewide system, he lent his enthusiastic support to the completion of the 119-mile initial operating segment between Bakersfield and Madera, plus a little more to Merced. 

In the midst of what seemed like a defeatist announcement — Newsom swears that he loves high speed rail just as much as the next guy does (or, rather, the previous guys: Arnold and Jerry) — Newsom equated the completion and operation of the initial segment with the revival of the Central Valley. Of course, the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, and others along the line already exist. But Newsom imagines them as one living, breathing metropolis, joined by the fastest technology on wheels. I say “breathing” literally, since Newsom hopes that the train will help alleviate the Valley’s terrible pollution. 

For a member of San Francisco’s elite, Newsom issued one of the most passionate endorsements of the Central Valley I’ve ever heard: "some critics will say this is a 'train to nowhere' But that’s wrong and offensive. The people of the Central Valley….have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better.” (See prior CP&DR commentary.)

In short, high speed rail is no longer about transportation. "High-Speed Rail is much more than a train project,” said Newsom. "It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley.” Newsom isn't talking about agriculture. Ag isn't a "potential" economic engine; it's the existing economic engine. If Newsom is talking about potential, he's necessarily talking about urbanism. 

When life gives you almonds, make almond milk, right? 

Newsom’s support for the initial segment is especially heartening to planners in the Valley’s cities. Ever since the approval of high speed rail, planners in the valley have been working on station area plans that, in many cases, work in concert with downtown plans. They are relying on the train’s actual economic impacts as well as on its psychological impacts.   

Without connections to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the economic impacts may be limited, but planners can still hope for the psychological impacts to justify and motivate the type of redevelopment they envision. Newsom outlined a strategy for rail-based revitalization: "We can align our economic and workforce development strategies, anchored by High-Speed Rail, and pair them with tools like opportunity zones, to form the backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley economy.” Newsom, who is, let's face it, the embodiment of the "coastal elite," conceives of the Central Valley -- California's proverbial "flyover state" -- as a place people travel within rather than just through. 

To terminate high speed rail entirely — as many critics have wanted — would have, I think, devastated those cities. Now, they can go full steam ahead. Meanwhile, San Francisco's new Transbay Terminal and Los Angeles's planned overhaul of Union Station will have to patiently wait their turn.  

As a piece of urbanism, Newsom’s revised experiment in high speed rail will be fascinating, and perhaps revelatory. As a piece of politics, it was a brilliant move.   

Support for high speed rail has been slipping with every new billion in projected costs, now somewhere in the area of $77 billion to $9 trillion gazillion. (Some people called Newsom's announcement "shocking;" but how shocking is it to pare down a project that's underfunded by tens of billions of dollars?) Gov. Brown got pilloried for it, and so did Gov. Schwarzenegger, to a lesser extent. Even fans of high speed rail — myself included — blanched at the price tag. Of course, Newsom has pledged to continue the environmental work on the whole system and "to push for more federal funding and private dollars.” But “pushing” is an easy promise to make.   

As the new guy, Newsom gets to have his cake and eat it too. (Preferably in the dining car midway between Fresno and Merced.) 

He gets to proclaim his moral support for the full system while being the candid pragmatist about the budget woes. He gets to champion a project that’s already underway and that he had nothing to do. He gets to mute a project that would have become an albatross for him were he to cheer for it like his predecessors did, while, at the same time, he tries really, really hard to find funding for it. He gets to defend the Central Valley against the haters while hailing the creation of a vibrant new urban area that already exists.

He gets to shepherd the completion of a modest project rather than the failure of an ambitious one. 

And he gives planners in Fresno, Bakersfield, and Merced a reason to come to work tomorrow. They’re not exactly designing the next Brasilia, but at least they can rest assured that they’re not designing the next California City either. 

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