Costs are rising for California’s much-troubled bullet train project, and Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing difficulty getting more construction money from the state legislature.
While Newsom signed 770 bills passed by the legislature this year, he couldn’t approve a big one that he wanted badly — a $4.2 billion appropriation to shore up the state’s much-delayed, increasingly expensive and obviously mismanaged bullet train project.
He couldn’t sign it because the legislature, controlled by his fellow Democrats, won’t send it to him. Legislative leaders, especially Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, are disenchanted with the project and want the money to be spent on improving local commuter rail service instead.
The $4.2 billion is the last bit of a $9.95 billion bond issue approved by voters 13 years ago on the promise that it would attract enough other financing for a $33 billion high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles with future extensions to San Diego and Sacramento.
For political reasons, it was decided that an initial segment would be built in the San Joaquin Valley, but the starter line has never really gotten started. There’s been some construction — most notably some sections of viaduct in and around Fresno — but it’s years behind schedule and has only a fraction of the money needed to cover its ever-rising costs.
Los Angeles Times journalist Ralph Vartabedian, who’s been a one-man truth squad on the project’s managerial and financial woes, reported last week that two of the San Joaquin Valley line’s major contractors want an extra $1 billion-plus for unforeseen costs. That would raise it to nearly $23 billion or two thirds of what the entire 800-mile system was originally supposed to cost.
The $4.2 billion that Newsom wants is sorely needed to keep the project shuffling along, but the state is still a long way from having enough money to cover the entire cost of the segment, much less the $80 billion or so more that a full project would need.
Rendon and other like-minded legislators see it as money going down a bottomless sinkhole rather than being spent on projects that could be completed in years, rather than decades, and have a direct impact on traffic congestion in Southern California. A chunk of the bond money has already been spent on upgrading commuter rail on the San Francisco Peninsula, and the Rendon faction is seeking parity for its region.
The odd thing about the situation is that Newsom himself seemingly was ready to abandon the project after becoming governor in 2019, virtually disavowing it in a speech to the Legislature. He then reversed course and said he not only wanted to complete the San Joaquin segment as then planned but extend it on both ends on the assumption that it could be linked to major metropolitan areas.
Newsom’s revised position had the effect of increasing the segment’s cost without declaring how the financial gap would be closed.
Newsom and the Rendon faction have been negotiating for months, ever since Newsom proposed to tap the remaining $4.2 billion in bond money, and the governor apparently was offered a roughly 50-50 split but insists on the entire amount. Diverting even a token amount of bond money would be tantamount to surrender and would whet the appetites of other urban areas for pieces of the pie.
It’s really time for those in charge to put up or shut up — either telling Californians when and how the project will be financed and completed or calling it quits before it becomes an even more embarrassing train to nowhere.
Newsom’s position — willing to keep it barely alive until he can will it to a successor governor — is somewhat cowardly for someone who purports to be decisive.
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