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Saturday Morning Coffee Break | Main | Saturday Gardening Thread: February 16 [KT]
February 16, 2019

Gavin Newsom decides to destroy the planet, maybe go to Washington someday [KT]

fly california.jpg

Will we even be able to fly for 100 miles now?

Good morning. Busy week in Washington. I think I might be able to add a few local details to the California-centered topic below:

Gavin Newsom decides to destroy the planet

The new California governor is surprising a lot of people by breaking with some of Jerry Brown's priorities. But his decision to abandon the Los Angeles to San Francisco run of the California high-speed rail project had to be a blow to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. No matter how much she spent on air travel during her campaign, her New Green Deal Resolution initially called for the USA to:

build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary

And we only have 10 years to plan and implement this! Or is it 12 years?

Maybe Lindsey Graham is right. Gavin Newsom has given up on the big push for HSR in California, the fifth largest economy in the world, even with federal help! What hope is there for the planet now? How can we inspire all those countries that hate us to mobilize all their resources to reach zero carbon emissions? Like Mr. Graham says,

Let's bury the hostaet and enjoy the next 12 years because they are going to be our last, right?

What shape was the HSR project in before Newsom took office?

When we last reported on the extraordinarily expensive (but dreamy) Transbay Transit Center, it was due to open in 2017. It apparently opened for bus service in August of 2018 and closed for repairs in September of 2018, It remains closed. Cracked girders were found. After Newsom's recent announcement, backers are wondering how to pay for rail lines into the center:

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the county Transportation Authority board, was unfazed. At this point, he said, San Francisco and the South Bay should go it alone.

"Our responsibility has always been connecting Santa Clara County to downtown San Francisco by bringing Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal, and we will continue to do that with zeal," he said. "Otherwise, we will have built the most expensive bus terminal in the history of humankind."

The shorter but more realistic link from Bakersfield to Merced would be a mere shadow of what Newsom described at the 2010 groundbreaking ceremony for the transit center, when he was mayor of San Francisco.

"We're going to be building ... something that is arguably a generation overdue," he said. "My gosh, I am sick and tired of hearing about how wonderful the transportation system is in France and Japan and 'Have you been to Shanghai?' Or, 'Do you know what they're doing in Beijing?'

"Well," the mayor continued, "finally California is going to get it right with high-speed rail, and that northern terminus will happen here."

Back in December of last year, an article was published on what the high-speed rail audit released shortly after the November election really meant. Perhaps this piece played a part in the new Governor's decision to shrink the high-speed rail project. Examples:

Auditor: "Although the Authority has secured and identified funding of over $28 billion that it expects will be sufficient to complete initial segments, that funding will not be enough to connect those segments, or finish the rest of the system--estimated to cost over $77 billion."

Translation: The Authority has succeeded in talking both the federal government and the state of California into providing billions of dollars on a failed project and yet still has no idea where the rest of the money will come from.

Auditor: "It has incrementally modified its plans for a fully dedicated high-speed rail system since 2012 and now intends to share--blend--existing transit infrastructure wherever feasible. Although blending is less costly, it subjects high-speed trains to lower speed limits and may require sharing time on the tracks with other rail operators."

Translation: All those promises made to voters about getting from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours were never serious.

Auditor: "The fact that [the Authority] has now exhausted all feasible options to use existing infrastructure raises concerns about its ability to mitigate future cost increases."

Translation: The Authority has followed Willie Brown's advice. The former Assembly Speaker, in a moment of candor, once told the San Francisco Chronicle, "In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there's no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in."

Recently, homeless encampments have sprung up in Fresno on properties purchased (and sometimes cleared) by the High-speed Rail Authority, but not managed by them, apparently. So they become like downtown San Francisco, with needles and poop, plus roaming dogs. The homeless people apparently cannot be removed. There are other forlorn empty, degrading properties elsewhere in the Valley, interspersed with people trying to go on with their lives.

What will become of Jerry Brown's dream now?

Some of the few Republicans in Sacramento are not real happy about Newsom's plan for the Bakersfield to Merced route.

While Newsom, a Democrat, earned a surprising amount of praise from California lawmakers in both Washington and Sacramento for pulling the plug - at least for now - on the rail project between the state's two largest urban areas, some are calling his proposal for a high-speed line between Bakersfield and Merced an unnecessary waste of money that voters in the Central Valley don't want.

"I would support the citizens of the Central Valley putting this up to a vote again," Shannon Grove, the Republican Minority Leader of the California State Senate, told Fox News.

Newsom makes some arguments that high speed rail in the Valley would spur economic growth, but I think most people around here would rather have a reliable source of water, road repairs, etc.

There's a piece in The New Yorker that includes a pretty reasonable short historical summary of the High Speed Rail project in California after starting with this:

During his first State of the State address, this week, Gavin Newsom, California's newly sworn-in governor, covered immigration, energy, and water policy, but the remark that made the headlines was about the ghost of a long-promised train. "Let's level about high-speed rail," Newsom said in the middle of his speech, in Sacramento, turning to the subject of a bullet train connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. "The current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long." Instead, he proposed focussing on a shorter inland route, between Merced and Bakersfield, two small cities that, it's fair to say, most coastal metropolitan Californians happily visit rarely or never. . .
The news was received as a downer on par with the extinction of the space program. "This country won't experience modern rail travel for another generation--if ever," Fortune lamented on Wednesday, in an otherwise supportive editorial. On Twitter, the governor was compared with the "Simpsons" character Lyle Lanley, who absconded with the takings from a fraudulent monorail scheme. Finally, on Wednesday night, President Trump tweeted, apparently on behalf of the federal government, that he wanted back the money given for the train, which he referred to as a " 'green' disaster."

It seems to be assumed in the New Yorker article that Jerry Brown's dream is just delayed, not abandoned. Alternative modes of transportation are described, including this:

The rail connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles is expected be finished in 2033. By that point, autonomous vehicles, green in both power source and roadway efficiency, are expected to be in commercial use--not everywhere, one assumes, but almost certainly on the stretch of highway separating the headquarters of Uber, in San Francisco, and Space X, in L.A. Because autonomous cars are more predictable and more controlled--in short, more train-like--there will be another costly push to streamline existing roadways to their habits. (They can use narrower lanes, for instance.) They also have the virtue, especially in spread-out California, of carrying passengers door to door.

You will have to read the piece yourself to see if you can follow the analysis of the effects of these policies on inequality.

I may not agree with all of Dan Walters' positions, but he is an old-time reporter. Started in high school, when he was 16, and never stopped. He retired from the Sacramento Bee in 2017, but kept writing. Didn't go to J-school. I like that. Here he writes on the death, this summer, of a smaller railroad boondoggle. I heard part of discussion about the High Speed Rail project where he was a guest on radio. During the discussion, there were some suggestions that the high speed rail project was really a way to get funds for improved commuter rail in the big coastal cities all along. That's a breathtakingly awful thought. There's a catch with regard to some of that federal money, though:

When the Obama administration gave California several billion dollars for its proposed high-speed rail project last year, it attached an odd string.

The money had to be spent, the feds said, on a relatively short stretch in the San Joaquin Valley.

Why? The official explanation was that it would be the easiest and cheapest segment of a statewide system, could be a demonstration and test track, and could be used for ordinary train service if nothing else happens.

The real reason probably had much to do with building in the congressional district of a longtime bullet train booster, Democrat Jim Costa, who faced a tough 2010 re-election, although everyone denies that crass motive, of course.

The political calculus included an assumption that the transportation-starved and economically depressed region would embrace the project - a supposition that's proven to be very shaky, especially among farmers who would lose their land.

That money was popular with a lot of local politicians in the Valley, but it doesn't directly help people in the coastal power centers upgrade their rail systems. I guess they have to use state money.

What about the rest of Newsom's State of the State Address?

Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review, writing in The Atlantic, seems to rather like some of Newsom's other priorities, such as affordable housing.

To achieve his objectives, the governor will have to make the case not just for casitas, or accessory dwelling units that can be added to existing homes, or for the occasional smattering of duplexes and townhomes in postindustrial corners of the state where NIMBYs are few and far between. He will have to make an affirmative case for a new way of life, in which Californians embrace multi-family dwellings, walkable neighborhoods, and, sacrilegious though it may sound, trading their private automobiles, or at least their second private automobiles, for increased reliance on buses, bikes, and of course, electric scooters.

That's today's voice of the National Review, I guess. At least he's not a fan of open borders.

As a resident of the Central Valley, I prefer the analysis in the City Journal. (h/t J.J. Sefton) It pours some cold water on the Green New Deal, describes fiscal woes of high speed rail even in the UKand includes this:

. . . Of the many high-speed rail lines built in the developed world, only two (Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon) have ever been profitable, and in each case highway tolls for the same routes exceed $80 one-way, making high-speed rail in those cases an economical consumer choice. California, the green heart of the resistance, has met fiscal reality; reality won.

Some greens and train enthusiasts, such as the deep-blue Los Angeles Times editorial board, have criticized Newsom's move, and others remain adamant in their support of the plane-to-train trope. But California, which has embarked on its own Green New Deal of sorts, has seen these results: high energy and housing costs, and the nation's highest cost-adjusted poverty rate, and a society that increasingly resembles a feudal social order. Attempts to refashion global climate in one state reflects either a peculiarly Californian hubris or a surfeit of revolutionary zeal.

Of course, Newsom and the bullet train's supporters justify spending billions more on the Central Valley line as a way of reviving the terribly challenged, impoverished economy of that region. Yet greens and their allies have already shown what comes of putting their ideas into practice--cutting water supplies to farmers, blocking new energy production, and leaving Route 99, the Valley's main thoroughfare, in such awful shape that it has been named the country's most dangerous highway. The Valley does not need a bullet train to nowhere. It needs, rather, policies that allow for its basic industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and energy, to expand and provide desperately needed jobs. Oil-rich California has been replacing in-state production for imported petroleum, to the enrichment of Saudi Arabia but to the detriment of California workers.

Gavin Newsom's Future

Dan Walters is a long-time critic of the California HSR project, and he remains a critic of Newsom's new plan:

Casting aside Brown's obvious love for a statewide system linking Sacramento and San Francisco in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, Newsom called for completing just the roughly 100-mile-long initial San Joaquin Valley segment, from Merced to near Bakersfield, and making it a high-speed system.

However, electrifying the track now under construction and buying high-speed trains to run on it would be an enormously expensive gesture for such short service. More likely, the stretch of track, when completed, will be folded into the region's existing Amtrak service.

But about the rest of the State of the State address, Walters wrote:

All in all, Newsom set an ambitious agenda for his governorship, the sort of multi-point plan that Brown had often denigrated. And in doing so, the new governor set a high mark for his political future.

Achieving all he seeks would propel him into White House contention sometime after 2020. Failing, for whatever reason, would make him a footnote in California's political history.

What do you think of his prospects for a White House race?


There is already Amtrak service from Bakersfield to Merced. I personally haven't heard many folks from down in Bakersfield hankerin' for an extra-fast trip to Merced. Think politicians will ever help the train station in Bakersfield hit the big time?

Hope you have a great weekend.

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