Newsom’s high-speed rail a victory for Merced, supporters say. But who will it serve?

Gov. Gavin Newsom: ‘Let’s level about the high-speed rail’

Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.
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Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.

Officials in Merced expressed excitement on Tuesday after hearing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to make the city the northern-most part in his more modest design for high-speed rail.

In his first State of the State address, Newsom said he would abandon the plan for a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles in favor of a train connecting the Central San Joaquin Valley from Merced to Bakersfield.

“Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego,” Newsom said, “let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were. ... We do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency overseeing the rail’s development, has three construction contracts in place where work is progressing between Madera and Shafter.

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy was invited to the speech on Tuesday in Sacramento. He attended with four other mayors.

“I was really pleased to hear him focus on the needs of the Central Valley,” Murphy said. “He mentioned Merced by name. We haven’t had that kind of attention from prior administrations.”

Newsom putting a spotlight on the Valley would be a positive change of pace, Murphy said, for agricultural-based cities that often feel left out. Murphy said he believes Newsom recognizes it’s time to rectify that neglect.

High-speed rail is important for the town of 87,000, he said. “We’re not connected well to other parts of the state with air service,” Murphy said. “Having that connectivity is going to be important for the future of our city.”

ACE Train to Bay Area

Merced is also in the plans for the ACE train, which passes over the Altamont Pass to the Bay Area. Merced leaders envision a time when Silicon Valley jobs are better connected to Merced.

“At some point, there will be connectivity from Silicon Valley to the Central Valley,” Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan said. “When? I don’t think anybody knows.”

In the meantime Merced stands to benefits by adding jobs and seeing new interest in downtown, Carrigan said. He pointed to UC Merced’s continuing investment in the campus and the city as a factor in convincing Newsom to keep Merced in the plans.

“It’s great news for the city of Merced. We have long thought our geographic location put us in the middle of this system,” Carrigan said.

Rail has its critics

A longtime skeptic of high-speed rail, former Merced Mayor Stan Thurston called Newsom’s change of direction “almost an entire surrender of the project.” A number of logistical issues need to be worked out before Merced could build its stop, he said.

Early plans have the station going in around 16th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, he noted, potentially causing a number of businesses to be forced to move or shutter.

“I’m glad at least the new governor seems to understand the severe challenges in the whole project,” Thurston said. “It should have been stopped a long time ago. I’m not the only one who said that.”

Thurston scratched his head over what new benefits the electric rail could bring that Amtrak doesn’t already cover. “We already have a train between Merced and Bakersfield,” he said. “It’s going to serve the same purpose. It’s just going to go faster.”

Critics of high-speed rail say it was never funded and hadn’t lined up all the land it would use.

Future of HSR?

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, described the governor’s new plan as “more modest” but said it “will still benefit the Valley.”

“I do not believe these changes foreclose a future HSR system for California,” he said.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimated last year that it would cost about $77.3 billion to build its initial 520-mile phase from San Francisco to Los Angeles by way of the San Joaquin Valley. The estimates had ballooned from initial estimates in 2010 of about $45 billion to build the entire system, including the extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he has more recently been located in Merced and Los Banos.