This may come as a shock to some, but Gov. Gavin Newsom knows where Bakersfield is. Not only that, he seems to appreciate the depth of its economic challenges.

Tuesday, in his first State of the State address, the newly elected Democratic governor of California expressed a determination to address those challenges.

Lip service or actual resolve? Check back later.

Newsom, citing ballooning cost overruns, told a joint session of the California legislature he was significantly downsizing the state's commitment to high-speed rail — with an asterisk.

That asterisk is California's Central Valley: Newsom said he will continue to support construction of the Bakersfield-to-Merced phase that's underway now. That link, he said, can play a major role in the Valley's economic emergence.

That's right: Newsom sees a bullet train running from Bakersfield to Merced and no farther. For the time being.

"I know that some critics will say this is a 'train to nowhere,'" Newsom said. "But that’s wrong and offensive. The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better."

Well, that's certainly true. If ever a California governor has spoken truer words about that longstanding neglect, the moment eludes me now.

The bullet train, Newsom said, is one of the vehicles capable of getting us there.

"High-speed rail is much more than a train project," Newsom said. "It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley.

"We can align our economic and workforce development strategies, anchored by high-speed rail, and pair them with tools like opportunity zones, to form the backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley economy."

We'll want to hear more about these opportunity zones, but Newsom's words sound like a starting point for discussion about Kern County's reliance on the two industries under assault in the Central Valley: agriculture and, especially, oil and gas. Economic diversification will be essential, given the obstacles those industries have been facing, for good or ill.

"Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield and communities in between are more dynamic than many realize," Newsom said. "The Valley may be known around the world for agriculture, but there is another story ready to be told."

Precisely what that story might be, he didn't say, and I'm not prepared to fill in the blanks. Nothing happens without a more educated workforce and that's not an overnight fix.

Undaunted, Newsom has named his economic development director, Lenny Mendonca, the new chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, which will finish its Phase 1 environmental work.

"We’ll connect the revitalized Central Valley to other parts of the state, and continue to push for more federal funding and private dollars," he said.

Newsom said the costs of simply walking away from the project are too high.

"Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it," he said. "And by the way, I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding that was allocated to this project back to Donald Trump. Nor am I interested in repeating the same old mistakes."

At the top of that list of mistakes is the succession of cost overruns that have eroded political and popular support for the project. To that end, Newsom has offered a new set of transparency measures he hopes will keep costs down and expectations high.

"We’re going to hold contractors and consultants accountable to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent – including change orders, cost overruns, even travel expenses," he said. "It’s going online, for everybody to see."

What I find interesting is that this most liberal of governors got more positive feedback from local Republican legislators than from local Democrats.

House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, gave Newsom's move a general thumbs up.

“I applaud that Governor Newsom has taken a prudent and objective reassessment of this project. The project has been half-baked since its inception," he wrote in a prepared statement.

His neighbor, Democrat TJ Cox of the the 21st Congressional District, took a dimmer view.

"... I believe that we must bring our rural and urban communities together to find transportation solutions that meet the needs of both – and this proposal fails to do that,” he said

Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Republican, criticized Newsom's "attempt to recast" the project, "which now no longer resembles what was sold to voters in 2008. This is a complete bait-and-switch on all Californians and Central Valley residents."

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, didn't overtly criticize Newsom's decision to scale back high speed rail, choosing instead to remind constituents of voters' original support for the project: "I respect the decision by California voters on the high-speed rail."

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, initially did not address Newsom's comments on high-speed rail at all, choosing instead to praise other priorities mentioned in his speech. Salas later released a supplementary statement: “I appreciate the Governor’s comments about the hard truths of High Speed Rail and his willingness to bring oversight to the project. I look forward to working with the Governor to bring transparency and accountability.”

Newsom hasn't stopped the bleeding, but the tourniquet is in place. He can ease the pain if his "opportunity zones" are meaningful tools. We're eager to hear more.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(6) comments

REMUDA

Please allow me to share this again (from yesterday's 'gitgo' alert . . . since it's still a 'movie storyboard' in the making . . . & and is Bobby P. in agreement . . . ?
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REMUDA Feb 12, 2019 2:03pm
I like California's AutoBahn, AKA I-5 . . . !
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Finish the segments in place and convert to high-speed roadways.
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CA has always been the "Land Of The Lamborghini" (and Corvette) . . .!
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Remember the good old days of "The Drive-Away" from Detroit . . . and the most convertibles per capita than any other state . . . ?!
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BTW, just because common sense prevailed, doesn't exonerate this "Last Minute
Lawyer" . . . ! He's still 'Brainless on the Border' . . . !

Lamonster

I hope that the governor's idea of revitalizing the Central Valley with HSR between Bakersfield and Merced does not mean turning it into bedroom communities for the impossible-to-afford bay area and Silicon Valley.

KenWitham

I am pretty sure that this is exactly what he is meaning.

ISpy

Removing border protection + high speed rail through the valley = more migrant farm laborers getting underpaid over a wider area. Comprehensive plan!

Boris25

Bakersfield to Merced ? This train leaves when you don’t want to leave, from a place you don’t want to leave from, and take you to a place you don’t want to go to, at a time you don’t want to get there, and then you have to get into a car and go wherever you’re going. this makes a lot of sense. But, what do you expect from California?

GaryJohns

Why did I somehow know that Bobby Price would think that a 220 MPH train from Bakersfield to Merced would make any sense...?

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