LOS ANGELES – California could still bring the nation's first high-speed rail train to reality, proponents say – even if the size falls short of the original grand plans – and that could encourage other states to follow suit.
A day after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would scale back plans for a bullet train connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, backers Wednesday focused on a smaller segment being built and said that gave them cause for hope.
Newsom, who took office last month, said Tuesday that extending the rail line to San Francisco and Los Angeles – which are about 400 miles apart – would, at $77 billion, "cost too much and, respectfully, take too long." Instead, he said he wanted to complete a shorter segment already under construction across the state's Central Valley.
He followed up with a tweet that indicated he is committed to the completed line over the long term.
We're going to make high-speed rail a reality for CA. We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will continue our regional projects north and south. Finish Phase 1 enviro work. Connect the Central Valley to other parts of the state.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) February 12, 2019
Rail supporters found cause for cheer.
"It's so important to get one up and running," said Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, an advocacy group. By focusing on a single working leg, Newsom can show people the potential – building enthusiasm that could foster other projects around the country, he said.
Instead of connecting two of the nation's largest cities, the 119-mileline will run through sparsely populated farmland between the agricultural hubs Bakersfield and Merced.
Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passengers Association of California, said a line that won't connect San Francisco and Los Angeles doesn't make sense. "We're in favor of high-speed rail, but it has to be a viable proposition."
Critics of the project have cited costs and other issues. State Auditor Elaine Howle released a scathing audit on the rail's overall mismanagement. Rushed construction and poor management cost the rail authority $600 million in budget overruns, according to the audit. The 87-page audit also found that the authority's decision to start construction in 2013, before it had secured necessary property and utility clearances, contributed to the overruns.
Rail supporters say they still hold out hope for a fully completed project connecting California's two population centers.
Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University in the Bay Area, said the line is needed as a long-term solution to the state's housing crisis.
"I am thrilled the project will continue in the Central Valley, but I think it's a missed opportunity not to extend it as originally conceived," she said.
The project was needed to allow workers at the high-paying tech jobs in the Bay Area to live in suburbs far from the city and commute in, Philbrick said, noting that California has been adding jobs at a 7-to-1 ratio to its ability to add housing.
Newsom's decision – and whether the completed Bakersfield-to-Merced line is viewed as a success – could have direct bearing on other high-speed rail projects around the country. Proposals have included a Tampa-Orlando route in Florida that was once backed early in the administration of President Barack Obama, a Dallas-Houston line in Texas and a Portland-Seattle line in the Pacific Northwest.
High-speed rail surfaced again this month as an element in the Green New Deal proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a plan targeting climate change that came under immediate fire from conservatives.
If the high-speed line can be connected to existing commuter rail lines serving the Bay Area or other transportation from Los Angeles in the south, it could still be a success, said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which has been pushing for high-speed routes from Chicago to cities such as Detroit, Michigan; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Paul, Minnesota; and St. Louis, Missouri.
Even with slower speed connections to the high-speed line, people will be amazed at the speed. "It's going to work," he said.
Harnish takes the long view. The nation has taken a run at high-speed rail projects about once every 10 years since the Japanese pioneered its bullet trains in the early 1960s, and a working line will build enthusiasm, he said.
"We cannot financially sustain forcing everyone to drive a car for every trip they want," Harnish said. "It's not good for people's health, not good for our communities, not good for the environment. We need a game-changer like high-speed rail to reconnect people."
Contributing: Sheyanne N Romero, Visalia Times-Delta
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: High-speed rail could still be a reality in California – and elsewhere, proponents say