California's next governor says he'll be 'committed' to high speed rail

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s bullet train dodged its second fatal projectile Tuesday in less than a week when voters overwhelmingly elected Democrat Gavin Newsom as high-speed rail champion Jerry Brown’s successor as governor.

With 53 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday, Newsom held a 58 percent to 42 percent lead over Republican candidate John Cox, who had promised to kill the project.

In his victory speech, Newsom — whose support for the project has waffled at times — said he’s “committed” to building the initial operating segment described in the 2018 business plan from San Francisco to the Central Valley.

Last Thursday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Richard Sueyoshi tentatively ruled against a lawsuit filed by a group of Central Valley farmers and Kings County, Calif., that could have halted construction. He said allowing high-speed rail bond funds to be spent on projects like Caltrain electrification does not change the project approved by voters 10 years ago because the new trains will also use that infrastructure. A final decision is expected within three months.

While a Cox governorship could have been fatal to high-speed rail, the new passenger railroad never became a huge issue in the campaign. Nevertheless, Republicans counted on the chance Cox presented to kill the expensive project and a measure on the ballot to repeal California’s year-old gas tax increase as ways to drive their voters to the polls to save as many GOP seats in the state’s congressional delegation as possible.

The gas tax repeal failed 55 to 45-percent.

However, though Democrats managed to retake the U.S. House of Representatives in Tuesday’s voting, three Republican congressmen from the Central Valley who oppose the railroad survived: Kevin McCarthy, the leading candidate to succeed outgoing U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan as the Republican leader in the House; Jeff Denham, who chaired the U.S. House railroads subcommittee while Republicans held the majority; and Devin Nunes.

Rail construction is underway in each of their districts but all three signed a letter in January 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, asking new Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to deny a $647 million grant for Caltrain’s electrification project because they wanted to block high-speed rail.

They managed to delay the electrification work for three months before the grant was awarded, but it cost Caltrain $20 million to keep contractors on standby.

State Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat and high-speed rail supporter who chairs the California Senate’s transportation committee, said he’s been encouraged by Newsom’s willingness to continue Brown’s legacy as a more conservative spender than the Legislature’s Democratic majority. He says that will help the rail project.

Financing is now the railroad’s key challenge, Beall said.

“Once you have the financing you’ll get the private sector engaged on the project. If we do a financing — if people can clearly see what kind of financing we have available — I think that will attract a private sector investor and the project actually can be completed.”
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