Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to complete only a Central Valley segment of the rail link risks turning the transportation project into an economic development tool.
On U.S. railroads, it’s been a week of emotional whiplash.
Just days ago, an outline of the much-anticipated Green New Deal— a proposal from Democratic lawmakers to dramatically cut U.S. carbon emissions—described the country’s need for high-speed rail network to help replace short-haul flights with lower-emission trips. Commentators on both sides of the aisle ridiculed the idea as politically impossible, even as environmental and transit advocates staunchly defended it.
Then, on Tuesday, California Governor Gavin Newsom tossed cold water on the state’s high-speed rail project, which represents a rare beacon of progress on next-generation train service in the U.S. In his first State of the State address, Newsom announced plans to scale back the scheme to link San Francisco to Los Angeles with a passenger train that could connect those cities in under three hours. Instead, only a much shorter, first phase of construction would be completed, putting 110 miles of improved rail service between the Central Valley cities of Merced and Bakersfield, with Fresno in the midst. That’s a huge step back from a 700-mile route connecting coastal population centers.
“[L]et’s be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and take too long,” Newsom said. “There simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” he continued, alluding to the massive engineering, legal, and political challenges that have blocked the project’s entry into California’s north and south metropolises. “I wish there were.”
At first, the governor’s words were reported by the Associated Press as “abandoning” the high-speed rail project. That was not accurate: His office later clarified that the state still plans to make California High-Speed Rail (or CAHSR, to use its virus-like acronym) a “reality,” including by completing environmental work so that northern and southern California could eventually be reached at some later date. Still, construction plans for those regions appear indefinitely postponed while work moves forward in the rural Central Valley, where funding is in hand and construction is already under way.
That shortened route between Merced and Bakersfield—cities whose populations number fewer than 85,000 and 400,000, respectively—will not be a “train to nowhere,” the governor said, invoking the favored insult of project detractors. “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.”
But there was no disguising the disappointment from transportation and environmental advocates over Newsom’s declaration. Housing shortages and congested transportation networks are pushing more workers out of Los Angeles and San Francisco than they are inviting them in, worsening inequality, dimming these cities’ economic stars, and pushing the state’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals further out of reach. “As California appears to be putting brakes on high-speed rail project, a reminder: U.S. is completely outside of the norm on intercity rail investment, & its transportation system is less effective, less convenient, & less ecologically sensitive as a result,” Yonah Freemark, a urban rail researcher, wrote on Twitter.
Brad Plumer, the New York Times climate journalist, echoed that theme, while invoking the California project’s tortured history: “An understandable decision given what a clusterfuck that project had become but man, the U.S. is really, really bad at building passenger rail.”
In many ways, though, scaling back the bullet train to the Central Valley is less of a disavowal of the state’s original ambitions and more a coldly realistic appraisal of the status of this $80 billion-and-counting megaproject. Approved by voters with a roughly $40 billion budget estimate in 2008, CAHSR is now tens of billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. Those vast overruns were probably inevitable for this project, the largest infrastructure undertaking in the nation. But CAHSR has also never seemed to have its priorities straight.
The idea to start construction in the Central Valley, for example, was devised to gain votes in the most rural, least transit-friendly swath of the state. But it probably wound up creating more political skepticism than support by orienting service away from the state’s urban ridership bases. What’s more, hastily kicking off construction before significant engineering and legal hurdles were cleared along the route has muddied the project’s future, lengthened delays, and multiplied costs, a state audit from November 2018 found. That report, which came after years of mounting project costs and questions around transparency, also cited the rail authority for misguided contracting decisions.
Given the project’s woeful state of affairs, not everyone interpreted Newsom’s pronouncements quite so fatalistically. California Senator Scott Wiener, who has become known nationally for his transit-friendly housing proposals, heard the governor committing to finishing what the state has been actually started. “Let’s take this for what it is: step one,” he told CityLab. “Instead of having these grand philosophical fights about how to build the entire system, let’s get done what is being built now and then we’ll figure out how to fund the northern and southern segments.”
Among rail supporters in the Central Valley, Newsom’s words were actually met with some delight: Never in living memory has a governor spent so much time in a State of the State address talking about her region, said Ashley Swearengin, the president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation. She’s also a former mayor of Fresno, the largest urban center in the Central Valley and a city that has undergone a significant downtown transformation partly in anticipation of high-speed rail’s arrival. “We think it’s terrific news here in the Valley,” she said. “I think it’s a genuine commitment to prove that these ideas can work—both to benefit within our region and to complete the project into the Bay.”
The Central Valley is sometimes known as the “other California.” A vast inland agricultural region that’s afflicted with high poverty, bad air quality, and a history of disinvestment, its fast-growing cities are a world apart from the cultural and economic powerhouses of Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Economic benefits from high-speed rail are already manifesting: The Sacramento Bee recently reported that 2,300 workers have been employed at 20 different rail sites around the Valley, and eventually, some $10.6 billion is projected to be spent. Rail boosters also imagine that cities such as Fresno and Bakersfield might become bedroom communities for priced-out urban workers commuting to Silicon Valley or Los Angeles.
This kind of economic development for the Central Valley was always part of the package of political assuagement as high-speed rail was conceived in the Golden State. But inland residents continue to show some of the least support for CAHSR. What’s more, California’s emphasis on inland connections might have been part of what set its supertrain careening down the wrong track. Committing to start service away from existing commuter hubs pushed aside what should have always been the most important element of this transportation project—which is to say, moving more Californians.
There are parallels here to another oft-controversial transportation mode. Building a California high-speed rail line to spark Central Valley investment without connections to the Bay Area or to Los Angeles might be compared to a super-sized variation of one of the many downtown streetcar projects that have popped up around the U.S. in recent years. Critics complain that these public transit lines—which have appeared in Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., among other cities—are effective principally as economic development tools, since they appear to stimulate investment and employment along their immediate route. But judged on the merits of effective transit—i.e., serving riders by moving them to home, work, and school—their record is pretty poor.
Meanwhile, the fundamental case of high-speed rail in California remains strong; indeed, it’s only getting more urgent. The state’s population is expected to swell to 50 million in the coming years. In the absence of fast end-to-end rail service, Californians will likely wind up with more highway lanes and flights between air hubs—and more emissions, worse traffic congestion, and thicker smog for the already suffering Central Valley. And those residents will still lack viable transit connections to important urban economies for people who don’t or can’t drive there.
Completing high-speed rail in the Valley may well succeed in spurring needed opportunity in the region. But scaling back the state’s planned SF-to-LA link does a disservice to California's broader transportation needs. “There is not the ridership to support that link between Merced and Bakersfield,” said Karen Philbrick, the executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, which published a report last year on the economic impact of the project. “The overarching goal should be to connect all areas of California. That would be the real mobility solution.”