Is Newsom on the wrong side of high-speed rail history?

California voters approved nearly $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds, but Newsom has abandoned the project.

As California struggles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and meet the long-term transportation needs of a growing population, officials from Gov. Jerry Brown to Mayor Ed Lee have steadfastly supported the embattled California High-Speed Rail Project, which Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently withdrew his support from. California now has until July 1 to find funds to match the federal grants.

It’s not exactly surprised that this calculating and politically ambitious centrist would cave in to conservatives like this, particularly as Newsom tries to set himself up to succeed Brown in four years. But it’s a sharp contrast to more principled politicians like Brown, and to those trying to create the transportation system future generations will need, as President Barack Obama took a step toward doing today by announcing new federal transportation funding.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox is also taking part in the three-day High Speed Rail Summit, sponsored by the United State High-Speed Rail Association, that began yesterday in Washington DC. Its theme is Full Speed Ahead.

"Secretary Foxx's experience at the local level as mayor of Charlotte is extremely valuable for shaping national transportation policy. We look forward to working with the Secretary to advance high speed rail in America across party lines," USHSRA President and CEO Andy Kunz said in a press release. 

While Newsom’s new tact may play well with myopic, penny-pinching, car-dependent moderate and conservative voters, many of his allies and constituents were furious with his about-face on a project that promises to get riders from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in less than three hours. 

Among those unhappy is San Francisco resident Peter Nasatir, who forwarded the Guardian a well-written letter that he has sent to Newsom’s office:

Dear Lt. Gov. Newsom,

I am a long time San Francisco resident, and although I have criticized many of your policies, I’ve always respected your commitment to be at the forefront of controversial issues.  Even if the issue could have wrecked your political career, you still had the guts to take the lumps for a righteous cause.

That is why I’m so shocked you would publically decry the High-Speed Rail project.  Yes there are cost overruns.  Yes the public is sour to it today, but what would you propose as an alternative:  more freeways, more runways?  Every expert in the field has already signed off that runways and freeways have expanded as far as they can.  Are you not a leading voice in demanding technical innovation in all levels of government? 

In your book, Citizenville, did you not put forth the clarion call for citizens to embrace technological change?  Did you not say that San Francisco was behind the likes of Estonia and South Korea in terms of digital governance?  Is it not fair to say that California is behind Europe and Asia when it comes to high speed rail?

Could you have said something along the lines that the trajectory the project is going is troubling, but Californians for generations to come will benefit from it.  This project must be saved, because to do otherwise will send California back 60 years.

You are a political maverick who had put his career on the line many times with such controversial positions as same-sex marriage, and walking the picket line with hotel workers on Union Square.  High-speed rail is coming.  The economy demands it, the environment demands it, and Central Valley population growth demands it.  You may get some votes from moderates in the short run, but in the long run, you have positioned yourself as the most prominent person in the state to be on the wrong side of history.


Peter Nasatir





will end up providing super-fast connections between, say, Bakersfield and Stockton. But it's the last 100 miles at either end that will not get built in any viable way.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

Step 1: Build the portion of HSR that runs through Atherton and Palo Alto.

Step 2: Spend no additional money on HSR elsewhere until Step 1 is completed, because it is pointless to build HSR if you can't do Step 1.

Step 3: Get back to me in 2040 when the lawsuits against Step 1 are resolved.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

and worse - there's no guarantee it will ever be built. I'd much rather look at a cheaper, faster method of connecting north and south like Elon Musk's hyperlink.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

The typo may actually be fitting, because this is about as pie-in-the-sky as it gets. You like it because no idea is too loopy if it comes from a businessman, while anything the government is involved in, is evil in your mind. But HSR is real, whereas "hyperlink" is some guy's dream.

Nothing against pursuing your dreams. Let him fund it, build it, deal with all the lawsuits and permits and cost overruns on his own dime, and then talk to me when it gets up and running... like in 2100.

Well actually I do have one little issue. Do you really want the guy who makes exploding cars to build your transportation network? We know how to build and run HSR safely. Governments in every civilized country do it. This may work someday, but I prefer not to be Musk's guinea pig.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

Has anyone ever told you that you're more than a little self-centered?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

"But HSR is real,"

Greg will personally ensure that the HSR section through Atherton gets built.

After all, it's not like the people there have any money to spend on lawsuits or anything...

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

It's clearly about you, the guest who prefers to travel by "hyperlink" than by rail. You fail to grasp that not everyone wants to participate in the experiment.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

"You fail to grasp that not everyone wants to participate in the experiment."

Yeah - a lot of us want a working transportation link which doesn't bankrupt the state before it's even built - we don't want to participate in the experiment currently taking place which is extremely unpopular with voters and is already far over-budget.

Tell me again Greg - why did the HSR authority rebuff SNCF - one of the world's most experienced operator of HSR networks, when it offered to manage the project in favor of using a New York-based construction management firm with next-to-no experience with HSR?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

HSR will not bankrupt the state. Not even close.
HSR is not "extremely unpopular" with the voters. Last poll that was done showed barely over half opposed.

The GG bridge was extremely unpopular with voters too. All big public works projects run into setbacks at some point. If we stopped everything for any minor setback or dip in the polls, nothing would ever get built anywhere. California voted for it, and it's about time.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 12:13 am


Shouldn't you be running over to the Crimea to help out the Russian "liberators"?

They need you!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 6:49 am


Shouldn't you be in Kiev manning the barricades with the neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists?

They need you!

Posted by Greg on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 8:00 am

LOL. I knew it!

Wanting to join the European Union, and wanting your country to look more like Poland than Belarus, makes you a neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalist!

Who knew that Greg loved Putin so much? Is there any left-wing dictator you won't lick the boots of, Greg?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 8:20 am

yelling against Jews and gays... you know, the ones that are about to get the vice-presidency of the coup council they set up, as well as the interior ministry responsible for state security -they're neo-Nazis. Even they don't really dispute that.

And Putin is neither a dictator, nor left-wing by any stretch of the imagination. His views on economics, security, and social issues would fit in with the US Republican party. But there's no question that what happened in Kiev was the overthrow of a democratically elected government, and now half the country isn't going along. Should we be surprised?

I'm no Putin partisan. There's bad and there's good there. But it's not healthy for world peace when one nation holds all the power in the world, so I'm glad that Russia has strong independent leadership that's willing to provide a balance.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 9:02 am

Greg hates America above all else.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 9:18 am

Ah, now I get the connection.

Putin hates America, and Greg hates America.

Instant romance!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 9:52 am

"And Putin is neither a dictator, nor left-wing by any stretch of the imagination."

LOL. Putin is arranging military alliances with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. (There is currently a Russian spy ship tied up at the dock in Havana.)

Nah, he's not a left-winger...

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 9:35 am

His alliances are based on geopolitics. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

By your logic, America supports the Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini monarchies because Obama is a Wahabbist Muslim.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

I knew it!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

Voters in San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties approved financing for the bridge in 1930. Voters don't approve measures that are "highly unpopular."

Greg - do you just throw lies out there in hopes no one will challenge you on them?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

"Extremely" might be the wrong word, but:

"Today, looking back, it is strange to think that this most beautiful of all bridges, this bridge that is universally recognized as the symbol of the city, faced bitter opposition from determined foes. It took several favorable court rulings, an enabling act from the State legislature, two Federal hearings prior to approval from the U.S. Department of War (which had long feared that any bridge across San Francisco Bay would hinder navigation), a guarantee that local workers would have first crack at the jobs, and a mass boycott of the ferry service operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad (which had opposed the bridge because it would end the company's monopoly on cross-bay traffic). It also took a new design."


"The only other county along the California North Coast, Humboldt County, declined to join the district after its residents opposed the bridge's construction, fearing that the increase in tourists and newcomers would disrupt the local redwood lumber industry and various cattle and sheep ranches."

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

Shocking stuff. And Humboldt declined to join in the bridge district - big deal.

Comparing HSR and the GG Bridge is apples and oranges. Greg was wrong. He's always wrong. He will always be wrong.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

That was my whole point. Voters voted for HSR with 53% in favor. Latest poll I saw says that 52% are now opposed. The opposition to the GG Bridge, while not necessarily overwhelming, was certainly greater than the opposition to HSR even at this moment. Reading some of the hyperbole that was said about the GG Bridge in the 30s, I have to conclude that CA has matured a bit since then. This will get built, and 50 years from now people will wonder what the fuss was all about. They'll wonder what took us so long.

PS... thanks for digging that up.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

Compare that to HSR - already over budget and behind schedule. And don't even mention the debacle of the Bay Bridge.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 11:03 pm


Clearly you haven't done any real homework on this project. As Judge Kenny ruled a few months ago, the present project is not what we voted for in 2008. As he also ruled, the state doesn't have anywhere near enough money to build this project.

And in fact it does pose a real financial risk to the state. If just the $9.5 billion in bonds authorized by voters are sold, the annual interest payment for the state's general fund would be $647 million!

Here's the CHSR business plan on where it's going to get the money to build the system:

Federal Grants: $17-19 billion
State Grants (actually Prop. 1A bonds): $9.95 billion
Local Grants: $4-5 billion
Private Debt or Equity Funding: $10-12 billion

Clearly the Feds aren't going to provide any more money, let alone $19 billion. No money will be forthcoming from local governments, always a non-starter. And of course there's been no private money invested in the system at all.

Posted by Rob Anderson on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 10:08 am
Posted by Guest on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 10:32 am

Sadly, it'll take a few years, and you'll be dead by then. But it will get built one way or another.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 6:56 pm

Your argument is completely fact-free. Where's the state going to get the money? Did you even look at the numbers I posted? Governor Brown's idea of using cap-and-trade money for the project isn't likely to even make it out of the legislature, since even some Democrats are bailing on the dumb project.

And there soon may be an initiative on the ballot to kill the project. Public opinion has turned against the project, which only got 52% of the vote in 2008.

Posted by Rob Anderson on Mar. 02, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

We will not have any choice but to build this train. The Governor boasted of a surplus in California budget. He should use all the power of his office to build this monumental train that all the people will love once done. Strange that if to build immense ugly malls along our highways then it is okay, and no lawsuit would stand a chance to stop those projects, but have an environmentally sound project, like this glorious train, and all would rise against it.

Posted by nafiss griffis on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 9:10 pm

Of course he will be. What did he achieve in San Francisco? Any new parks? Any more trees in the city? Any better Transit as he promised? Any new buildings that are architecturally appealing? Nothing exceptional he did as a Mayor. His legacy is a terrible MUNI, more cars on our streets, more homelessness, more struggling schools, and a successor Mayor of his choice who is doing the same thing Newsom did.

Posted by nafiss griffis on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

Newsom's best accomplishment as mayor was on homelessness: Care Not Cash, supportive housing, Project Homeless Connect, and Homeward Bound. Newsom got Care Not Cash on the ballot in 2002 when the Bay Guardian left was still infatuated with Food Not Bombs and the pie-throwers. City progressives never forgave Newsom for eating their lunch on the homeless issue.

Posted by Rob Anderson on Mar. 01, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

the money. It's what motivates Gavvy.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

Would probably eventually come in at $600 billion with no assurance of passengers.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 12:51 am

Wow. Nobody ever called Brown "principled" before.

Newson is a realist. The supporters lied about where it would be built and how much it would cost. The public is now against it because it makes no sense to build it the way they now plan.

To oppose a stupid plan is to be on the right side of history.

Posted by GuestMavis on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 10:12 am

Wow. Nobody ever called Brown "principled" before.

Newson is a realist. The supporters lied about where it would be built and how much it would cost. The public is now against it because it makes no sense to build it the way they now plan.

To oppose a stupid plan is to be on the right side of history.

Posted by GuestMavis on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 10:13 am

HSR is truly a visionary project, akin to the Interstate Highway system. But Americans don't seem to have the capacity to think big. We don't fund major infrastructure projects, we simply wittle away at them until they're a shadow of their original goal.

HSR is the best alternative to planning for future growth in California. Freeway and airport expansion is not cost-effective, practical, or environmental.

But HSR, too, has been watered down to not be TRULY HIGHSPEED. There should be zero stops between SF and SJ, then 1 stop in the Vally, and on to LA. The NIMBY's on the Peninsula should simply be bypassed; put the line either down the center of 101, in the median of 280, or along the bay frontage.

Twenty or thirty years from now, when our state's population is double, this infrastructure avoids California from having Third World transportation nightmares and ensures our future both economically and environmentally.

Posted by Rlrcoaster on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 3:18 pm
Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

That's the bottom line. And because the project makes no sense it will never get a dime of private money.


Posted by Guest on Feb. 28, 2014 @ 7:58 am

Pillorying his guy for not supporting HSR? You guys might be right that HSR is super awesome and it will be all ponies and unicorns and rainbows, but I think you should seriously consider the possibility that you may be wrong and this is a huge losing proposition for progressive causes. To play devil's advocate, I think it's pretty easy to lay out the progressive case against HSR. Let's break it down:

Positive social impact:
1) Avoid TSA lines.

Negative social impact:
1) Embedded carbon is an ecological nightmare
2) Slower than airplanes
3) More expensive than airplanes if you combine operating and amortized capital cost.
4) If fares turn out to be higher than planned (and more in line with global norms), then only monocle-toting tech workers and movie stars will be riding it.
5) State government will have less borrowing power and revenue streams available to pay for social services or other useful functions for decades to come.

Obviously negative points 1, 3, and 4 are subject to debate*, but if someone finds this line of argument persuasive, I don't think that's necessarily just because they are a "calculating and politically ambitious centrist."

* Although I do think anyone on either side of the issue should admit that there is a great deal of uncertainty there.

Posted by jvm on Mar. 05, 2014 @ 12:21 am

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