Maybe all the California HSR hot takes are confusing because there are no good hot takes to be had

Gavin Newsom announced yesterday that he was going to keep supporting HSR as governor, but that he committed to finishing the Fresno-Merced segment and is, for now, letting go of the likely secondary phases of getting the service into LA and San Francisco.  I think that’s a fair representation of what he said.

There were various hot-takes, with coverage being all over the map as “this is Newsom walking back on HSR” to “this is Newsom redoubling the state’s commitment to the project!”  It left my head swimming by the end from reading all the hot takes from Transit Twitter yesterday.  (It is kinda funny that my iPad autocorrect changes hot takes to “hostages.” So, so meta.) 

Beloved colleague Marlon Boarnet pointed us to Henry Grabar’s nice piece up on Slate about the general feasibility of HSR in the US, and how most places aren’t the disaster that California currently is. He interprets Newsom’s comments as walking back the project. I am less sure. I also don’t agree that California HSR is a “disaster.” All projects, large and small, are messy and take more time and resources than you want them to, and evaluating most in the middle is a mug’s game. I reserve “disaster” for events where people die, just like I won’t allow for their to be any “war on” language when there aren’t tanks rolling.

 I think the general problem with trying to interpret Newsom’s comments as a definitive pro or con is maybe that he doesn’t know himself, and he probably shouldn’t.  We probably shouldn’t, either. Grabar is right in that these projects can be feasible, but it requires us to make good governance decisions along the way, or at least not totally f-ed up governance, and our federal leadership right now is….entirely screwed up. And could be for another six years. California isn’t getting anything out that administration unless Trumpie’s big donors here want it.

In theory, California could finance the entire project by itself. In practice, we still don’t have a really stable, sufficient funding source for the capital.   And that adds a lot to the capital risk, especially with putting lots of up-front investment into places that aren’t likely to be big markets for the service, like Central Valley cities.

The decision made years ago to start construction in the Central Valley created some path dependencies we can’t hop out of easily now.  There were benefits and costs to that choice, and it’s useless to repeat now the concerns I raised then because that brings crying over spilled milk to new levels. It’s probably better to acknowledge that Newsom’s signaling that we are going to finish the “Valley to Valley” segment first attempts to follow through on delivering at least some of the project’s envisioned benefits: the construction work is good for the people who get it (local benefits), and if our wildest dreams come true, what gets built will be operational and inspirational in a few years, and the rest of the state will clamor for their projects.

Less optimistically, we will spend a big chunk of change and get very little in the way of riders and the project becomes a poster boy for rail boondoggle among rail’s persistent opposition.

The fact that Newsom didn’t go there suggests something important: this project is less of a governing priority than things like housing where he has come out swinging. He’s kicking the can down the road a bit on HSR, and I think not really in a bad way.

Later, perhaps, when the project starts to get finished, people may get some clarity on how the state shouldn’t fund infrastructure systems on a few bond measures and cap-and-trade money that is going bounce around from year to year. To create a statewide network, we need a dedicated, long-term funding source, period.

I can say it out loud because I have tenure and I’m not running for office. The reason why this project has been fragile from the beginning was the unwillingness of its proponents to get that question answered first.

Unfortunately, “later” in a time of climate crisis is bad, but as far as I can tell, Newsom doesn’t really have a lot of choices here. If he does, I’d be glad to hear of them.