In his State of the State speech last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom seemed to drive a stake through the $77 billion Sacramento to San Diego plan when he frankly said there wasn’t a path to get it done. Instead, he proposed a 171-mile San Joaquin Valley line running from Bakersfield to Merced that supposedly would cost about $17.5 billion. The Merced connection is potentially important because the Livermore Valley Transit Authority (operator of the Wheels buses) is currently working on a link to San Joaquin County that could be extended to Merced.
That link would allow people living in the San Joaquin Valley to connect with either the Altamont Commuter Express to the Tri-Valley, Fremont and the Silicon Valley or to BART and the rest of the Bay Area. Those would be some ugly commutes time-wise, but it would be productive time instead of being parked on I-680 or I-580.
In the wake of Newsom’s proclamation, there have been a few responses that further muddied the waters.
• Newsom’s staff quickly began clarifying and walking back what he said to couch it as the first phase to demonstrate feasibility (a total pipe dream) that would lead to expansions to the Silicon Valley and to San Francisco.
• President Donald Trump tweeted that the state of California owes the federal government $3.5 billion that it received from the Obama-era stimulus grant (remember, those shovel-ready projects in 2009—10 years down the road and there’s a few concrete pillars that are the only discernable construction progress). The administration also cancelled a $928 million grant targeted to the rail project that is included in the $3.5 billion, $2.5 billion already has been spent. Newsom tweeted that it’s political retribution for California leading the legal action against the president’s declaration of emergency to build the wall along the Southern border (California is party to 48 legal actions against the Trump Administration.)
• Sen. Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Beall, who was a key player in pushing through the gas tax increase, pointed out that Newsom does not have the authority to cancel the project. That’s up to the rail authority on which he sits. He told Dan Morain of CalMatters two key questions: Will ridership be sufficient on the Central Valley line to operate without a subsidy and, if not, how would operations be subsidized because the law forbids taxpayer subsidies.
• Beall and other Silicon Valley and San Francisco leaders believe the planned route along the Highway 152 corridor to connect San Joaquin County with the Silicon Valley would have high ridership because it would open up a reasonable commute options to residents in the Los Banos area. That potentially would spark new housing there. It’s also quite expensive because a tunnel is required at Pacheco Pass.
• The current plan continues to allocate money for electrifying the CalTrain line between San Jose and San Francisco, an improvement public officials along that corridor have sought for years.
So, stay tuned. Despite the governor’s pronouncement there are many, many moving parts and it’s doubtful that the San Joaquin Valley line meets what voters were promised in 2008—a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours.