California bullet train
A rendering of the California bullet train. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday called for scaling back California’s two largest public works projects — the bullet train and delta water tunnels.

In his first State of the State address in Sacramento, Newsom said the $77 billion bullet train project approved by voters should be canceled after the segment from Merced to Bakersfield is completed.

“Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” he said. “I wish there were.”

Newsom also called for only one of two massive tunnels to be built to connect the water systems in northern and southern California.

The bullet train, which was approved by Proposition 1A in 2008, would have connected San Francisco with Los Angeles and ultimately extended to San Diego. It is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

“The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long,” Newsom said. “There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

The $17 billion California WaterFix project is designed to divert water from the Sacramento River as it enters the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and carry it through a pair of 35-mile tunnels to an existing state and federal pumping station in the southern part of the delta.

“I do not support the WaterFix as currently configured,” Newsom said. “Meaning, I do not support the twin tunnels. But we can build on the important work that’s already been done. That’s why I do support a single tunnel.”

The project is supported by the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District, but opposed by environmentalists in Northern California who fear it will harm the delta wetlands.

The two projects were championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, and seen by many as a major part of his legacy.

Newsom said he wants the state to move ahead a high-speed line between Merced and Bakersfield.

“I know that some critics will say this is a ‘train to nowhere,’ but that’s wrong and offensive,” he said. “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.”

Newsom fell short of entirely scrapping the idea of a statewide rail line, saying environmental work will continue and the state will keep pushing for “more federal funding and private dollars.”

“But let’s just get something done,” he said.

That caveat led to outrage from some critics, who said Newsom should pull the plug on the entire project.

“The governor tried to have it both ways — he admitted it has been a failure, but he committed to keep spending billions on the failed project by changing the project to just a Central Valley commuter train from Merced to Bakersfield,” said Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican from the Coachella Valley. “That’s not what people were promised, and the project should be killed outright.”

Carl DeMaio, chairman of the watchdog group Reform California and a former San Diego City Council member, said Newsom clearly intends to keep the high-speed rail project alive.

“Newsom wants to spend tens of billions on a rail line between Merced and Bakersfield — a complete waste,” DeMaio said. “Once this segment is done, politicians will argue that no one is riding this route because it doesn’t travel far enough, and voila, the entire project will continue. Taxpayers should not be fooled. The insidious move is actually designed to keep this boondoggle alive rather than do the right thing and terminate this wasteful project immediately.”

Updated at 3:10 p.m. Feb. 12, 2019

— City News Service contributed to this report.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.