At last count, California’s Democratic political leadership had filed four dozen lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s administration, reflecting differences on policies large and small.
For the most part, California’s legal allegations have been on target. However, Trump is on solid legal and logical ground in the latest conflict over the state’s disastrous foray into high-speed rail transportation.
Nine years ago, the Obama administration gave the state a $3.5 billion grant to finance a big share of the initial bullet train segment, more than 100 miles of track from a point north of Fresno to the outskirts of Bakersfield.
The federal money was to be matched by state funds from a $9.95 billion bond issue passed by California voters in 2008 and the San Joaquin Valley stretch was to be completed by 2017. Later, before Trump became president, the feds gave California an extension to 2022, but only tiny portions have been built.
Late last year, the state’s auditor, Elaine Howle, told the Legislature that meeting the 2022 deadline would be nearly impossible, citing the High-Speed Rail Authority’s “flawed decision making regarding the start of high-speed rail system construction in the Central Valley and its ongoing poor contract management for a wide range of high-value contracts.” Howle said the problems “have contributed to billions of dollars in cost overruns for completing the system.”
Concentrating on Finishing the San Joaquin Valley Segment
A couple of months later, Gavin Newsom succeeded bullet-train booster Jerry Brown as governor and told the Legislature in his first State of the State address, “Let’s be real. The project as currently planned would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”
He said he would concentrate on finishing the San Joaquin Valley segment and extending it on both ends to piece together a three-system pathway for traveling between San Francisco and Bakersfield.
After Newsom’s address, President Donald Trump declared on Twitter: “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the federal government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”
Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration, in a 25-page letter, formally rescinded about $1 billion dollars not yet given to California and hinted again that it would claw back the other $2.5 billion.
The Bullet Train Utterly Lacks a Rational Purpose
“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.”
“The Trump administration is trying to exact political retribution on our state,” Newsom responded in a statement. “This is California’s money, appropriated by Congress, and we will vigorously defend it in court.”
That’s not really true. The money was part of an overall appropriation by Congress for rail projects and California was given a piece of it by the Obama administration under a contract.
It has not met its contractual obligations and cannot, as Howle said late last year, meet the 2022 deadline due to poor management during Jerry Brown’s administration.
The bullet train utterly lacks a rational purpose, has been ill-managed from the onset and is a black financial hole. If the Trumpies strangle it, they would be doing California a big favor.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.