Gov. Gavin Newsom has long prided himself on taking a holistic approach to government, realizing the connection between key issues like transportation and climate change, fire management and the makeup of corporate boards of directors.
He also likes bold approaches, like his sudden decision in March to issue reprieves for all 700-plus murderers, rapists and arsonists on California’s Death Row.
So it’s rather odd that Newsom has not followed up since assuming office on one of the more interesting statements he made while a candidate last year.
Asked during an interview about the state’s hyper-controversial high speed rail project, Newsom made a strong link between California’s huge housing deficit and the potential of bullet trains to help solve or at least mitigate it.
His remark of about one year ago was very different from the plan he espoused during his winter state-of-the-state speech, where Newsom proposed limiting the bullet train to a relatively short run between Bakersfield and Merced.
In real life, that might be a decent starter route, but as a stand-alone project, it does little or nothing for the vast bulk of taxpayers footing the bills. Nor would it help an iota in solving the housing shortage.
But Newsom, who called during the campaign for building 3.5 million more homes in the state within the next seven years, had a different vision before he took office.
“I think the high speed rail project has become far too expensive,” he said back then. “But it could be very useful in helping with housing.”
Newsom suggested then that running bullet trains to the Central Valley from the Los Angeles area, the East Bay and the Silicon Valley could make both home ownership and long-distance commutes viable for people living in places like Modesto, Merced, Madera, Tracy and Bakersfield. He did not imply this could solve the very different problem of homelessness.
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Newsom noted that land is exponentially cheaper in the Central Valley than in coastal counties, making homes far less expensive. Some workers already commute between two and four hours daily from there to jobs near the coast. High-speed trains could cut those commutes by half or more, he said, thus making the more affordable inland locations newly viable for many thousands.
Estimates of the cost of building “affordable” housing run between $330,000 and $450,000 per unit today in projects of more than 100 apartments or condominiums in coastal counties. That expense could plummet in the lower-cost Central Valley.
Newsom’s proposed budget includes about $1.3 billion as a state contribution to getting started toward his massive housing goal, almost half in the form of tax credits for developers. That’s just a start-up estimate for the massive build-up envisioned. But the eventual tab could likely be cut by tens of billions of dollars if most building occurred in rural areas, where resistance to new construction might also be far less.
The only way that can work is if there’s fast transportation to locales with masses of jobs. Enter high speed rail.
Applying the savings in housing costs to the bullet train could also solve many of its financial woes, and the project might proceed at least close to its original concept of serving cities from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento.
Looking at this holistically, it would also cut greenhouse gases and climate change by putting commuters in trains, not cars. The same commuters would then use public transit within the big employment areas (read: cities) unless they kept an extra car near bullet train stations. Cost and inconvenience ensure relatively few would do that.
Which means the link candidate Newsom saw between housing and the bullet train could become very real if Gov. Newsom pushed it with anything near the zeal he’s shown for getting rid of the seldom-used death penalty.
“I want to be known for looking around the corner, seeing potential and not doing politics as usual,” candidate Newsom also said.
It’s time for the still-new governor to act on his words and make linkage between bullet trains and new homes real, something that won’t happen unless he supports it vocally.