PD Editorial: Newsom rethinks costly rail, water projects

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Gavin Newsom is the first Democrat to succeed a fellow Democrat as governor of California since 1887.

But if anyone expected a seamless continuation of Jerry Brown’s priorities and style, Newsom signaled some big changes Tuesday in his first State of the State address, starting with two of his predecessor’s trademark projects.

Newsom stopped short of abandoning high-speed rail, a project Brown supported so enthusiastically that many people forgot he inherited it from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The new governor wants to slim it down dramatically, scrapping plans for Bay Area-Los Angeles service in favor of a regional rail line serving the Central Valley.

Brown’s other big project — twin tunnels to divert Sacramento River water to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities — will be cut in half, Newsom told a joint session of the state Legislature.

And where Brown picked his fights with Washington carefully, Newsom appears to relish squabbles with President Donald Trump.

Taking note of the State of the Union address last week, Newsom said Trump “offered a vision of an America at odds with California values.” He argued that Trump’s policies are driving up health care costs in California, and he sharply criticized the president’s focus on illegal immigration, noting that illegal border crossings are at their lowest level since 1971.

“This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism,” Newsom said.

On Monday, he announced plans to reassign 360 California National Guard members who have been stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border since last year. The guardsmen were deployed by Brown, at Trump’s request. Newsom said they will instead work on fire prevention projects and help root out illegal cannabis farms in Northern California.

“The border ‘emergency’ is a manufactured crisis,” he said Tuesday, “and California will not be part of this political theater.”

Newsom also announced several appointments, including new leaders for the state’s rail, school and water boards, and the creation of a commission on homelessness and supportive housing and another to report back in 60 days on utilities and wildfires in the wake of PG&E’s bankruptcy filing.

Details were sparse, but he promised a master plan on aging and more accountability and transparency for public and charter schools, and he called out Santa Rosa as a city trying to provide housing, while noting that his administration is suing Huntington Beach for failing to meet its affordable housing obligations.

But the headlines from Newsom’s speech are high-speed rail and the tunnels.

On rail, Newsom said. “Let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long.” He wants to finish ongoing work on the line between Merced and Bakersfield, saying it would be an economic engine for the valley. That sounds good, but he needs to demonstrate that the $9.95 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2008 and cap-and-trade money committed by the Legislature will deliver the project in a reasonable time and at a defensible cost.

We’ve long opposed the twin tunnels, which would made it possible to divert even more water at the expense of endangered salmon and others who rely on the environmentally sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But, as we wrote a year ago, a single tunnel has the potential to protect the Delta while providing greater certainty for water users statewide.

Newsom has bold ambitions, but scaling back these monster projects from past administrations is a good place to start.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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