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California responds to Trump Administration

March 08, 2019

The ongoing struggle over federal funding for California’s high-speed line from San Francisco to LA adds uncertainty to what was already a confusing situation. A reality check is in order.

The key fact to keep in mind is that, in his February state of the state address, Gov. Gavin Newsom reaffirmed the state’s commitment to building the Central Valley segment and to moving forward with environmental reviews that are laying the groundwork for the full SF to LA high-speed line. He also promised to seek funding for the full line, while adding that there currently “isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Francisco to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to LA.”

Some media outlets reported, falsely, that Newsom had “pulled the plug” on high-speed line. Unfortunately, the Trump administration then seized on the governor’s less-than-clear remarks (and the media’s mangling of them) to announce that it would terminate an agreement committing nearly $929 million in federal funding to the project.

In his March 4 response, the CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, Brian Kelly, wrote that Newsom’s speech did not “constitute a fundamental change in the purpose of the overall project for which federal funding was awarded.”Kelly was explicit that completing the full SF to LA line remains the overriding goal of the project. He noted that the three basic elements of phase one—the Central Valley line, the “ongoing regional projects in the north and south,” and environment clearances—“will enable us to ultimately connect a revitalized Central Valley to Silicon Valley and Southern California.”

Responding to President Trump’s threat to claw back the funds already invested in the project, Kelly wrote that this “would be disastrous policy,” since it would terminate the jobs of more than 2,600 craft workers and the contributions of nearly 500 small businesses.

Kelly also cited several “enhanced transparency measures” that Gov. Newsom had initiated, so that “taxpayers, policymakers, and our partners . . . can easily see how public dollars are being spent and how the project is progressing.” Those measures include quarterly reports to the legislature and improved online access to public documents.

For all the efforts to declare it dead, in other words, the high-speed rail project just survived the transition to a new administration in California.

It’s unfortunate that many media reports got the basic facts wrong. The high-speed line’s ultimate fate is now precarious, and its prospects hinge on many factors. Some of those factors are outside of the governor’s sphere of control, but many are well within it. And the recent controversy caused by Newsom’s state of the state speech shows just how influential his words can be. One certainty is that—for the sake of both California and the nation—this is a fight he should eagerly embrace.

Links to the letters are below:

Summary Letter to FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory

Full Detailed Letter to FRA Director of Program Delivery Jamie Rennert