The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

California Governor Gavin Newsom Tears Off the Bullet-Train Band-Aid

((Justin Sullivan/Getty))

Making the click-through worthwhile: California governor Gavin Newsom shocks his state and advocates of the Green New Deal by pulling the plug on a gargantuan and exorbitant high-speed-rail project, a question about how lauded creators approach their work after achieving their dream, and a senator tries to save Americans from the terrifying menace of roller-coasters.

The Twist Ending: Gavin Newsom Kills Off California’s High-Speed-Rail Project

Back in 2015, most television-watchers were grumbling about the second season of the HBO series True Detective, finding it much less interesting than the first one. But I found one choice by the creators fascinating: A major plot point was sleazy, mob-connected businessmen talking about federal funding for California’s high-speed-rail project as an easy way to line their pockets. Vince Vaughn played a ruthless, ambitious, mob-connected businessman who yearned to be a legitimate, respected mogul, and he envisioned building his small fortune into a massive one by overcharging taxpayers for land and services through front companies.

HBO’s programming isn’t exactly known for depicting conservative or small-government arguments. The decision to depict an ongoing statewide “green” project as a shady, opaque source of corruption suggested two things. First, that even within the likely left-leaning creative class of Hollywood, the high-speed-rail project was starting to get a reputation as a perpetually delayed money pit. And second, in an era where interest groups and social-media users are apt to take offense and protest almost everything, the creators of the program did not fear that they would hear complaints from environmentalists that they were unfairly vilifying a noble program.

That was about three-and-a-half years ago. Yesterday, California’s not quite pulling the plug, but dramatically scaling down the project:

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in his first State of the State speech that he intends to scale back California’s $77-billion bullet train project, saying that while the state has the capacity to complete the first leg in the Central Valley, extending the rail line to Southern California and the Bay Area would “cost too much and, respectfully, take too long.”

The Democratic governor supports finishing the controversial high-speed rail line between Bakersfield and Merced, and said it would invigorate the economy in California’s midsection and reduce the region’s air pollution. But because of the project’s persistent cost overruns, mismanagement and delays, the grand vision of bullet trains whisking passengers from San Diego to San Francisco doesn’t appear viable and will need to be reassessed, Newsom said.

“There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency,” Newsom said. “Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”

Newsom also said he will continue to push for federal and private funding for the entire rail system, leading to some confusion about whether he planned to scrap all but the Central Valley portion or simply postpone construction of the remaining legs of the project. After the speech, a spokesperson for the governor’s office confirmed the latter.

If the state government finds this project too expensive, too slow-moving, and not used enough to justify the use of state funds . . . why should federal taxpayers offer more money? Why would private investors?

As our Kevin Williamson summarizes, “At the time of its demise, the bullet train was years behind schedule, had spent more than seven times its originally allocated budget, and, of course, carried no passengers.”

As I wrote last fall, Gavin Newsom is the personification of San Francisco liberalism. He would not make this move unless he financially saw no other options. He just got elected last November; best to tear off the Band-Aid quickly in his first term and move on.

Of course, this news comes at about as bad a time as possible for advocates of the “Green New Deal.” If California — which, if measured as a separate country, would be the fifth-biggest economy on earth — doesn’t have the tax base to support a project like this, no state does. Defenders of high-speed rail as a concept might be able to argue that California is uniquely bad for costs of land acquisition, environmental review, legal fights, and construction materials and labor. But every state is going to have these problems on some level.

California appeared to have the rare advantages of a bunch of heavily populated cities in a line and a patient group of lawmakers who were committed to the idea. When people rave about high-speed rail in other countries such as Japan or parts of Europe, that’s what you have. The United States has that in the northeast corridor, but beyond that, our major cities are too spread out for these projects to make financial sense. This morning, Colby Itkowitz reminds us that back in 2009, Obama’s transportation secretary Ray LaHood declared, “One of the legacies for this administration, for the president and the vice president, will be high-speed rail. That will be their transportation legacy.”

Newsom and California’s decision to pull the plug on the high-speed-rail project dovetails with Vermont’s experience trying to create a statewide single-payer health-care system from 2011 to 2014. Vermont, like California, is a heavily Democratic state, where one party controlled the governors’ mansion and both houses in the legislature. There was no Republican sabotage, no foot-dragging from those allegedly nefarious conservatives, no sinister lobbyists blocking some oh-so-easy win idea. This was Vermont, where it’s just well-meaning progressives as far as the eye can see in every direction. And no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t make the numbers work; the analysis kept telling them they had to double their tax revenue overnight and that the savings for patients were modest. Even a liberal progressive governor could grasp that businesses would flee the state in droves. Activists and true believers were left sputtering that the plan failed because lawmakers just didn’t try hard enough.

California’s lawmakers tried really hard . . . and they still couldn’t make it work.

What Do You Create After Your Most Beloved Masterpiece?

Our Kyle Smith offers an assessment that is sure to bring scathing denunciation, even though it’s pretty defensible: Most of what Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda has done since his masterpiece is . . . eh, just okay. He’s appeared in the Mary Poppins reboot, some television cameos here and there, and he’s just released a new book of “inspirational verses.”

(I had a chance to see the Chicago production of Hamilton in autumn and went in ready to enjoy it but suspecting that it couldn’t possibly live up to the monumental hype. Folks, it’s really, really good. I know getting tickets usually involves selling a kidney on the black market, but it’s almost worth participating in illicit organ-trafficking.)

Shortly after marveling at Hamilton, I wondered what Miranda would do next — and maybe that’s a really daunting question for Miranda himself. Once you’ve created something that’s nearly universally beloved, how do you follow that? How do you meet astronomical expectations once you’ve set the bar so high? Do you become more self-critical? Does picking up the pen (or sitting at the computer) become more difficult because of the trepidation that whatever you produce, a significant number of people are likely to say, “Eh, it’s not as good as Hamilton”?

(Idea: Manuel reads the rest of Ron Chernow’s biographies, and creates the musicals Grant, Washington, Rockefeller, and Morgan, and then at the end, a time-traveling Nick Fury recruits all of them into The Avengers.)

A potential parallel to Miranda: Back in the 1990s, almost everybody and their brother loved John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book about the city of Savannah that was one part travelogue, one part history, and one part true crime. It was one of the biggest nonfiction books of all time. and then in 2004, Berendt wrote The City of Falling Angels, which was about Venice and a fire which destroyed the historic La Fenice opera house in 1996. Most readers and reviewers responded with “Eh, it’s okay I guess.” (The book came out in 2005, and I think one reviewer noted that the torching of an opera house with no fatalities just didn’t feel like that big of a deal in the years after 9/11.)

I don’t think Berendt’s written anything since — which seems sad, but it’s his life, and he’s brought at least one wildly beloved book to the world. How many people can say that?

America’s Anti-Roller-Coaster Senator

Our Charlie Cooke declared that Senator Ed Markey was “obsessively anti-rollercoaster” and that seemed too absurd a position to be real. Nope. Right now, states oversee and regulate the safety of roller-coasters, and Markey is convinced that this is a wildly dangerous arrangement that only the federal government can solve.

In 2007, Markey decried “the roller coaster loophole,” demanded federal regulation of roller coasters at amusement parks in 2012, demanded national safety standards in 2013, and repeated the call in 2016.

You are, quite literally, more likely to die from a lightning strike than get killed by a rollercoaster ride. “In the U.S., around 1.7 billion rides are taken by nearly 300 million people each year, and from 1994 to 2004, the country reported an average of just four deaths per year. Comparatively, an average of 39 people die each year in the U.S. from being struck by lightning.”

ADDENDUM: Shoshanna Weissman with a succinct summary of how most people describe interest groups: “Groups you dislike ‘buy influence.’ Groups you like ‘change policy.’”

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