Trump claws back nearly $1B from California high-speed rail project


The Trump administration declared California’s high-speed rail project dead yesterday, even while state officials extolled its beautiful plumage. Noting that the state had abandoned the full San Francisco to Los Angeles vision which prompted federal funding for the project, the White House pulled back nearly a billion dollars — and said it would come after the remaining $2.5 billion in federal investments as well:

The Trump administration on Thursday followed through with its plan to pull more than $900 million in federal funds from California’s beleaguered high-speed rail project.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said California officials “failed to make reasonable progress” and had not met federal requirements for a project beset with cost overruns. But the decision is also consistent with President Trump’s penchant for sparring with leaders of the liberal-leaning state. …

In addition to revoking the federal government’s agreement to contribute $929 million to the project, the administration Thursday said it “continues to consider all options regarding the return of $2.5 billion” in stimulus funds given to the state.

The letter from railroad official Ronald Batory noted that the project was years behind schedule, many billions of dollars over budget, and still didn’t have any realistic date for completion. The decision to focus the project on two small population centers rather than the link between California’s two major metropolises was the last straw. The federal government didn’t sink $3.5 billion into the project just to connect 600,000 people:

Federal officials said in the letter Thursday that California “has repeatedly failed to comply” with the terms of the original 2010 agreement “and has failed to make reasonable progress on the project.”

“It is now clear that California has no foreseeable plans, nor the capability, to pursue that statewide High-Speed Rail System as originally proposed,” wrote Ronald Batory, the federal railroad administrator, adding that the state “is chronically behind in project construction activities and has not been able to correct or mitigate its deficiencies.”

One of its deficiencies is an utter lack of planning to cut through mountains on both ends to get to San Francisco and Los Angeles. That led Governor Gavin Newsom to restrict the project to a link between Bakersfield and Merced, two smaller communities already linked by rail and highways. Newsom said it was wrong to call this a “train to nowhere,” but the bill for even that portion of the system would have been eye-popping:

The initial plan was to build a line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, which would cost $79 billion. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom pared down the project earlier this year, concentrating on a line connecting Bakersfield to Merced. The governor acknowledged that critics might call this “a train to nowhere,” which he said was wrong. At the time, he said the initial project would “cost too much” and “take too long.” He did acknowledge he would eventually continue the broader project.

The project was supported by Newsom’s predecessor Gov. Jerry Brown. It was estimated that it would have been completed by 2033. It is projected the train would have transported more than 120,000 riders per day, at speeds of up to 200 mph.

The project is among the most expensive infrastructure projects in the U.S. According to a recent report from the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority, the line in California’s Central Valley, which is under construction, will cost $12.4 billion – up from initial estimates of $10.6 billion. The entire Central Valley segment is expected to cost more than $20 billion.

Don’t forget that the initial cost projection for the entire line was $33 billion, not $79 billion. The latter estimate came up more recently, long after the federal government supplied $3.5 billion in subsidies and California voters passed bonds to cover the construction costs. The $79 billion figure is almost certainly far out of date too; other estimates put the costs over $100 billion, all to run fixed track across the San Andreas Fault and into two geologically active earthquake zones. This was always a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century transportation non-problem, and a very costly one at that.

Put simply, this project has been a disaster from the beginning. Newsom and California officials claim that this move is payback for their opposition to Trump’s border policies, but these decisions stand well enough on their own. California sold the federal government and its own voters a bill of goods on high-speed rail, and Newsom and other California officials want everyone to pay for it anyway. The Trump administration is right to take back our money and tell Californians to fund their own boondoggles.

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