California high-speed rail project to be scaled back

Feb. 15, 2019
In his first State of the State speech, Gov. Gavin Newsom says the high-speed rail project, as currently planned, would “cost too much and take too long.”

The California high-speed rail project, which survived various political tugs-of-war and multiple lawsuits, is being scaled back following a speech by the state’s new governor. In his first State of the State address on Feb. 12, Gov. Gavin Newsom noted his respect for his predecessors’ “ambitious vision” and said the state’s economy and quality of life depend on improving transportation. 

“But let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,” said Gov. Newsom. “Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA. I wish there were.”

The governor is not willing to walk away from the entire project and called for the regional projects north and south to continue, along with the environmental work associated with Phase 1 of the high-speed rail project.

“High-speed rail is much more than a train project. It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley,” he said.

The governor said he ordered transparency measures because walking away from the project in its entirety would be a waste of money and effort.

“We’re going to hold contractors and consultants accountable to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent – including change orders, cost overruns, even travel expenses. It’s going online, for everybody to see,” said Gov. Newsom. “You’re also going to see some governance changes, starting with my pick for the next chair of the High-Speed Rail Authority, Lenny Mendonca, my economic development director. Because, at the end of the day, transportation and economic development must go hand-in-hand.”

What is everyone else saying?

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly said, “The governor has called for setting a priority on getting high-speed rail operating in the only region in which we have commenced construction—the Central Valley. We are eager to meet this challenge and expand the project’s economic impact in the Central Valley. Importantly, he also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our ‘bookend’ investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion. We welcome this direction and look forward to continuing the important work on this transformative project.”

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said, “[APTA] appreciates and applauds California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s commitment to the long-term goal of bringing high-speed rail to California and to continued improvements of local and regional public transportation systems.

“The investments made to date have created thousands of jobs and will produce dramatic improvements in mobility through clean, efficient public transportation.

Skoutelas also reiterated the call for federal lawmakers to prioritize infrastructure investment.

“APTA is committed to working with governors and local leaders to support their efforts in advancing vital investment projects that require strong federal, state and local partnerships,” he said. “Improving and expanding our nation’s transportation system is critical, and APTA urges Congress and the Trump Administration to make infrastructure investment a priority this year, which will benefit millions of Americans across the country.”

Jim Hartnett, executive director of Caltrain, which has a portion of its electrification project funding tied into the high-speed rail project, explained the electrification project is under construction and is scheduled to completed in 2022.

“The state’s high-speed rail project is required to provide $713 million toward Caltrain’s $2 billion project to electrify the rail corridor and replace most of the commuter rail system’s aging diesel trains with a new electric fleet that will reduce travel times, improve train frequency, and increase system-wide capacity for a rail service that over 65,000 daily riders depend on…Last year, the state increased its commitment to the electrification of Caltrain service when it awarded an additional $165 million to support the purchase of additional electric trains,” said Hartnett.

He noted that Caltrain is currently working to complete the Caltrain Business Plan, which is a long-term evaluation of how rail service should grow on the Caltrain corridor to accommodate ridership demand and address regional traffic congestion through 2040.

“Gov. Newsom’s new strategy recognizes the simple fact that the Californian public, while enthusiastic about access to high-speed rail, has lost faith in project managers to deliver it in a reasonable fashion,” said Rail Passengers President Jim Mathews. “By delivering on 200mph-plus service along an Initial Operating Segment (IOS), the Authority can restore public trust.

“There is no question that the IOS must eventually connect to major metro areas in the north and the south of the state for it to have value,” continued Mathews. “We expect to hear from the Newsom Administration and the authority in the coming weeks about developing low-cost paths to connect the IOS to the San Joaquin corridor.”

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Editor in Chief

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the magazine’s editorial direction and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.