Construction continues on the Fresno Trench section of the California High Speed Rail Project on April 16, 2019, in Fresno, Calif. The state’s high-speed rail agency announced Tuesday it’s suing the federal government over the Trump administration’s decision to terminate a $929 million grant for the bullet train. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

California rail authority sues Trump administration over terminating grant

LOS ANGELES — California’s high-speed rail agency announced Tuesday it is suing the U.S. Department of Transportation and its senior officials over the Trump administration’s decision to terminate a $929 million grant for the state’s beleaguered bullet train.

In a 20-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the state effectively accuses the administration of playing politics with a decision that contradicts federal regulations and makes faulty allegations about the project’s lack of progress.

The decision this month by the Federal Railroad Administration, a part of the Transportation Department, was made “in violation of its own procedures and policies, was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law, and threatens to wreak significant economic damage on the Central Valley and the State,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit further escalates the conflict between California and the Trump administration over a project that aims to make the state a leader in advanced transportation but has been hobbled by lengthy delays and massive cost overruns. The suit names as defendants Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and FRA chief Ronald Batory.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said the state will also seek a temporary restraining order that will argue that “the real motive underlying FRA’s action was political: to punish California for opposing President Trump’s proposed border wall.”

The complaint filed Tuesday details the sequence of events on Feb. 19, a day after California and 15 other states sued to invalidate Trump’s border emergency declaration. The complaint notes that Trump tweeted that the lawsuit was led by California, “the state that has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion.” The complaint notes, “Later that same day, in a curt, three-page letter, the FRA abruptly notified the authority of its intent to terminate the grant agreement.”

The suit argues that the federal action contradicts the grant terms and federal practice, which requires that both parties work to help correct problems within grants, take modest initial steps to withhold funds and only terminate a grant as a last resort.

The lawsuit, filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on behalf of Newsom and the California High-Speed Rail Authority wasn’t completely unexpected, since Newsom vowed last week to commence legal action after the FRA announced it was terminating the $929 million grant.

The grant has not been paid out and the state had not expected to begin tapping the money until about 2021.

Newsom, after holding a news conference in Oakland on homelessness, blasted Trump on Tuesday as a “petulant president” who is only concerned about ginning up fodder for his political rallies. Newsom noted that the courts have blocked many of the president’s actions, and he expects that to happen again regarding the funding for California’s high-speed rail system.

“The money’s been appropriated. Basically, it puts every large-scale infrastructure project in the United States of America at risk. You would have no trust or confidence in an appropriation,” Newsom said.

The FRA had justified its termination in a 25-page letter to state officials, outlining what it believed were a wide range of violations of a 2010 agreement with the state. It noted that the agency had rejected the projects budgets and funding plans since 2016, because they were flawed.

But California rail officials said the FRA had failed to make the state aware of any problems in its execution of the project or its relationship with federal regulators.

The suit asks for a decision setting aside the termination of the grant and a permanent injunction against the possibility that the money could go to another project, which the FRA had threatened in its termination letter.

The Trump administration has vowed to also claw back a $2.5 billion grant for the bullet train, which was fully spent by the state by 2017. Chao criticized California in a speech earlier this year, calling Newsom’s plan to scale back the project a “classic bait and switch.”

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