Newsom tweaks focus of high speed rail to Central Valley

California’s high-speed rail project is years behind schedule, over budget and some think the plan is slipping off the rails.

During Gov. Gavin Newsom's State of the State speech on Tuesday, he hinted that the part of the system connecting the Bay Area to Southern California may no longer be the current priority.

An audit last year was critical of the California high-speed rail authority's decision-making and oversight of billions of dollars.

“Let’s level about the high speed rail,” Newsom said inside the state Capitol building in Sacramento. “Right now there simply isn't a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”

Word that construction would – at the moment - only continue in the Central Valley to complete the section from Merced to Fresno and Bakersfield went over well with a republican state senator who represents the Central Valley.

“For him to come in and say we’re going to roll this project back. We’re only going to make it from Bakersfield to Fresno so the Central Valley has transportation, you already have part of that project started. I think that was one of the big issues,” said Shannon Grove.

But some members of the governor’s own party are concerned when no clear path for connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco was presented during the speech.

“The extent to which it doesn’t link to the two largest urban areas in the state – two of the three largest urban areas in the state seems problematic,” said Democratic House Speaker Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles.

Since, there were state lawmaker who insist that the governor has not pulled out of a high speed rail system that connects the northern part of the state to the south, rather a realignment of the California High Speed Rail Authority, which has been under scrutiny since a November 218 audit criticized the agency’s decision-making and oversight of billions of dollars.

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

The governor’s emphasis of fixing issues identified in the audit was a sign for some that the governor has not ruled out finishing the project to connect the state via a bullet train.

“What I heard him say is we have a segment in the central valley that is under construction that is funded,” said State Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco. “It will ultimately be the backbone for the entire system connecting north to south so we need to get that done and take it from there.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority said work will continue of the project but with a focus on the Central Valley project.

“Importantly, he also reaffirmed our commitment to complete the environmental work statewide, to meet our “bookend” investments in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and to pursue additional federal and private funding for future project expansion,” said a statement from Annie Parker with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

When voters approved rail in 2008, they were told it would cost $40 billion, but the project has now ballooned $77 billion for completion of the system, which timeline has been pushed back until 2033.

The first stop in the Bay Area for the high speed would have been San Jose.

“It makes sense for High-speed Rail to extend from the agricultural Capitol of the Central Valley to the Innovation Capitol of Silicon Valley. During his speech, Governor Gavin Newsom, exhibited his commitment to doing the hard work to get the Valley to Valley connection done,” said a statement from Kimberly Ellis, senior vice president of communications for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “He spoke to the hard work of prioritizing while also balancing ‘dollars and cents’ so I appreciate his approach in starting with the Bakersfield to Merced connection.”

Gov. Newsom said he replacing Brown's head of the state board that oversees the high speed rail project and pledged more accountability for contractors that run over on costs.