The federal government has notified the California High-Speed Rail Authority it is ending its agreement to help fund the bullet train project, a setback that could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
The action applies to a $929-million grant made in 2010 during the Obama administration, which has yet to be paid out. The rail authority until now has spent $2.5 billion from a previous grant that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said the government wants repaid.
The Federal Railroad Administration had recently cut off communications with the state rail authority, a sign that relations were worsening between the two partners, leading to Thursday’s effective announcement of a divorce
“Based on CHSRA’s repeated failure to submit critical required deliverables and its failure to make sufficient program to complete the Project … FRA has determined that CHSRA has violated the terms of the FY10 Agreement and has failed to make reasonable progress on the Project,” the Federal Railroad Administration said in a letter delivered Thursday to the state rail authority.
The action is an escalation in the battle between President Trump and the state of California since Gov. Gavin Newsom said this year that the project lacked a path to complete a statewide system and vowed to scale back the $77-billion project.
Newsom reacted strongly to Thursday’s announcement.
“The Trump Administration’s action is illegal and a direct assault on California, our green infrastructure, and the thousands of Central Valley workers who are building this project,” the governor said in a statement.
“Just as we have seen from the Trump Administration’s attacks on our clean air standards, our immigrant communities and in countless other areas, the Trump Administration is trying to exact political retribution on our state. This is California’s money, appropriated by Congress, and we will vigorously defend it in court.”
Ten years after voters approved it, the rail project is $44 billion over budget and years behind schedule. A state audit in November blamed flawed decision-making, organizational faults and poor contract management by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Many don’t believe the train can complete the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the two hours and 40 minutes mandated in the bond measure.
The federal government issued notice in March that it intended to terminate the $929-million grant and was exploring options to seek recovery of the $2.5-billion grant issued in 2009. The notice asserted that the state had violated the terms of the grants, was not making adequate progress and would fail to meet a 2022 deadline to complete 119 miles of construction in the Central Valley.
The grants are crucial to Newsom’s plan to build a 171-mile partial bullet-train segment from Bakersfield to Merced, a plan he unveiled after saying that a more ambitious Bay Area-to-Central Valley system would cost too much and take too long to complete. Even with the federal grants, the state will have a difficult time paying for the $16-billion to $18-billion partial system.
-Stuart Leavenworth and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times