Where the Sidewalk Starts: Newsom’s stance on high-speed rail is ineffectual, disappointing

President Donald Trump wants to take a lot of things away from Californians — from threatening to suspend natural disaster aid to intimidating immigrants and sanctuary state policies, the current administration continues to undermine the best parts of the Golden State. Last week, he even asked for $3.5 billion back from California. Luckily, Gov. Gavin Newsom has already put his foot down.

“This is California’s money, and we are going to fight for it,” Newsom wrote in a statement, following a Twitter skirmish with the president.

This money was a portion of funds federally allocated for California’s high-speed rail project, voted for in 2008 and partially retracted by Newsom in his 2019 State of the State address. Newsom made the right choice in calling to scale back the project, because it isn’t fiscally feasible for California to execute the entirety of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s train plan. He also made the right choice in battling Trump for money that rightfully belongs to California’s infrastructure development, but he should have still affirmed the vision of this project. He should have reminded Californians of all that could be accomplished with high-speed rail — strengthened transportation infrastructure, environmental protection and opportunities for higher efficiency, production and state unity.

I’m a Bay Area native attending college in Los Angeles. My future airplane ticket savings and my hopes for the future of transit rode on this train. While options like FlixBus, Megabus or Amtrak are all more environmentally friendly than making the solo drive in my minivan, this proposed high-speed rail system promised to cut the trip from a seven-hour drive to less than half that. It would save me a tank of gas and save the environment from almost 100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

California needs a cross-state train.  California’s image as a highway state is detrimental to the state’s environmental health and our future in transit technology and development. Decreasing the number of single passenger vehicles and commercial trucks on the road would reduce emissions and off-ramp congestion when driving into urban areas. High-speed rail would stimulate development and create housing in areas previously inaccessible.

Industries like tourism might even benefit from this high-speed train — the more convenient travel is, the more likely it is that people will travel. Travel between two of California’s largest metropolitan areas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, would increase. The underappreciated Central Valley would get more traffic (though not by car). Fresno will be known for more than raisins. Bakersfield will be more than just California’s Texas. Sacramento will lose the status of “town you escape from, not live in,” as illustrated in the 2017 film “Lady Bird,” and people might even remember it’s California’s capital city.

Last year, the American Lung Association reported that eight of the 10 most polluted areas in the U.S. are in California. Most of them are located in the Central Valley, the area that ironically caused a spike in the high-speed rail’s projected price. The project’s initial cost was proposed to be secured through only $9 billion in bonds, and it now stands at a projected cost of $77 billion. The higher price tag comes from the cost of purchasing so much land in the Central Valley, one of the regions that would most benefit from this train. Geographical challenges not recognized in the original plan also started emerging during construction, raising costs even further.

Admittedly, $77 billion is a lot of money. This money could be better allocated to improving local transit, like expanding the Bay Area Rapid Transit service area or converting southern California’s MetroLink to entirely electric-powered trains. These developments would set up infrastructure for more affordable and sustainable interstate transit in the future.

With Trump’s money-grubbing and constant complications, California can’t afford this project, especially now that its projected completion date has been extended. But that doesn’t mean California shouldn’t aspire to a train system that rivals countries with smaller economies -— that managed to build their own rail systems with a proportionally similar service area to California’s. It’s expensive, but not impossible — if the U.S. can build a transcontinental railroad, California should be capable of laying about 500 miles of track.

All in all, it was a poor move on Newsom’s part. He spoke vaguely in his State of the State address about the train — initially, most outlets interpreted his statement as a surrender of the plan entirely. The Associated Press sent out a single line alert: “California Gov. Gavin Newsom abandoning plan for high-speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, says too costly,” updating later with Newsom’s clarification — he wants to scale back the project, not end it completely.

Newsom is trying to appease the highest number of people through his compromise, but in failing to support his predecessors’ project — or even rejecting and ending it entirely — he has sent a mixed message to Californians, furthering our doubt in the possibility of high-speed rail. Whether or not the high-speed rail becomes a reality in the projected time frame, its benefits are important to keep in mind — because California needs better infrastructure, transit planning and environmental consciousness.

Breanna de Vera is a sophomore writing about urban planning. She is also the opinion editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Where the Sidewalk Starts” runs Mondays.