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California To Slow Down Plans For High-Speed Rail System


California Governor Gavin Newsom gave his State of the State speech today and made a surprise announcement. He's scaling back the state's ambitious and controversial high-speed rail plan.


GAVIN NEWSOM: Let's be real. The current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long.

CORNISH: This $77 billion project has been in the works for years. Joining us now to talk about the announcement is Ben Adler of Capital Public Radio.

Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So this rail project was a favorite of prior governors, right? Why is Newsom downsizing the project?

ADLER: Well, because, as he alluded, it's really expensive and way behind schedule - the original cost estimate was $33 billion back in 2006 for San Francisco to Anaheim in Orange County, later from Sacramento to San Diego. But at one point, the project ballooned up to nearly $100 billion. And even though Jerry Brown lowered that projection a bit, the fact is the money simply isn't available right now, in large part because Republicans in Washington cut off funding after they took over the House during the Obama administration back in 2010. But it is important to say that Newsom's office is making clear he's leaving open the possibility of the full project in the future. For now, he is, I guess the phrase is, re-prioritizing.

CORNISH: So help us understand - because he says part of the rail project will be built, the part that goes through Central Valley. Why is he focusing on that section? What's going on with politics there?

ADLER: Because the money's largely there, first of all - there has been money identified, including $3.5 billion or so in federal government money that was previously given to the state - if you think all the way back to early 2009, the stimulus package during the Great Recession - or the great - yes, the Great Recession, not the Great Depression.

And so there's that and state bond funds that will help build the project from Bakersfield to Merced in the Central Valley. Now, it's been criticized as the train to nowhere. Newsom says that is offensive to a region that is largely not growing anywhere near as fast as some of the coastal areas - Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, etc. And so Newsom is saying this is going to be an economic boost to an area that really needs it.

CORNISH: Stepping back from California for a second, this was supposed to be a model for other projects nationwide. I mean, do you think this decision is going to have an impact on other efforts to build high-speed rail?

ADLER: Well, I'm not aware of other major efforts underway right now. This has certainly been the big one. And a lot of people have been watching California. Now it's ironic, though, that one day - or just a couple of days after the Green New Deal was presented in Washington - that does include money, in theory, for high-speed rail or a priority of high-speed rail - that California is putting a hold on the project. But Gavin Newsom, I think it's pretty safe to say with some confidence that if money magically appeared from the federal government under a Green New Deal, he would be all too happy to look at getting this project back up and running.

CORNISH: In the time we have left, I just want to ask you about immigration because this governor has been critical of the Trump administration's policies. Did he say more in his speech today?

ADLER: Well, he reiterated what he announced yesterday, which is pulling the California National Guard - most of the troops - off the Mexican border, ending a deployment authorized by former Governor Jerry Brown. Newsom calling everything the president is doing at the border a manufactured crisis and political theater, saying California will not be a part of it. But beyond the headline, the truth is Newsom is leaving roughly a hundred troops or so to counter drug smuggling, and many of those will be at ports of entry, including at the border. So it is oversimplistic. Just like to say he's abandoning high-speed rail, he's not fully abandoning it. And he's not fully abandoning pulling all troops from the National Guard off the border.

CORNISH: That's Ben Adler of Capital Public Radio.

Thank you for your reporting.

ADLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Adler