Newsom’s confusing high-speed rail announcement leaves status of downtown extension project unclear

The fate of a rail extension that would finally bring trains to San Francisco’s $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center — which is now only a bus station — was left swirling in confusion Tuesday after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “State of the State” speech.

Newsom said he was backing the California high-speed rail project, but emphasized completion of the Merced to Bakersfield section, leaving Californians unclear on the fate of the San Francisco and Los Angeles connections.

That uncertainty is already manifesting in San Francisco, where shortly after Newsom’s speech the Board of Supervisors advised the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to reconsider its plans for the Downtown Rail Extension project. The project would extend a newly electrified Caltrain and high-speed rail to the temporarily-closed Salesforce Transit Center.

At least, that was the plan.

“It doesn’t appear this (governor’s) administration is going to support high-speed rail from Los Angeles to The City of San Francisco, so we need to weave that into the discussion,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who is also chair of the transportation authority, told city staff after reading Newsom’s remarks Tuesday.

When asked how the transportation authority would move forward on the project, its spokesperson Eric Young told the San Francisco Examiner simply, “we’re going to have to review what the governor said.”

SEE RELATED: Downtown rail extension route to Salesforce Transit Center wins approval

In his address, Newsom told the state “let’s level about high-speed rail.”

“The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,” he said. “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.”

“However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield,” he added.

Newsom said that connecting those communities would alleviate the “worst air pollution in America” and unlock “the enormous potential of the Valley.” Newsom also said directly that “we will continue our regional projects north and south” including necessary environmental review and said those who “want to walk away” from high-speed rail would mean California “wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it.”

Read the full text of Governor Gavin Newsom’s speech here.

Different news agencies have interpreted Newsom’s comments different ways. Reuters said “California will not complete” high-speed rail project. Axios said California will “abandon” the rail plan, and Fox News said California would “pull plug” on billion-dollar bullet train.

But news of high-speed rail’s death is premature, said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who issued a statement to ostensibly correct the record.

“The press is inaccurately reporting that Governor Newsom is killing high-speed rail to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That’s not true,” Wiener said in his statement. “He said we must focus on completing the Central Valley segment and then move forward from there. The Bay Area and Los Angeles must be – and will be—part of California’s high-speed rail network.”

Wiener wasn’t the only state official to seek to correct the record.

Brian Kelley, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail, Authority, issued a statement clarifying that Newsom called for “setting a priority” to high-speed rail in the Central Valley, and suggested that Newsom “reaffirmed our commitment” to completing environmental work necessary to lay tracks from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Newsom, “also reiterated the State’s obligation to maintain its commitment to help fund completion of the Caltrain Electrification Project,” Hartnett said.

Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett released a statement as well, reminding Newsom and the public that the high-speed rail project is required to provide $713 million toward Caltrain’s $2 billion electrification project, which is part of the Downtown Rail Extension effort.

The Caltrain Electrification Project is currently under construction and is scheduled to be complete in 2022.

Despite the Rashomon-like retelling of Newsom’s speech, Peskin, the city supervisor, seemed convinced the governor just tapped the brakes on high-speed rail.

“There are different interpretations of what the governor said, but I have just read his speech, and it seems pretty darn clear to me,” he told transportation authority staff. “So I want that to be a part of your thought process as it relates to (Transbay Joint Powers Authority) and Caltrain extension.”

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s annual CityBeat poll released Tuesday, sponsored by Dignity Health, showed 80 percent of San Franciscans in support of high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

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