ROBERT PRICE: Policymakers have neglected the valley, Newsom concedes

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 San Joaquin 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 the 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 and than from local Democrats.

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, did not address Newsom’s comments on high speed rail at all, choosing instead to praise his mention of “clean water, workforce training, housing and ensuring the Valley receives its fair share of resources” and “accountability, transparency and efficiency” in government.

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.