The drama surrounding California’s high-speed rail only got worse this week for Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Trump administration announced Tuesday that it plans to take back a not-yet-paid $929 million grant meant for the high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Moreover, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it is “actively exploring every legal option” to reclaim the $2.5 billion — out of $3.5 billion in total federal funds — it’s already given to California for “this now-defunct project.”
Tuesday’s announcement no doubt came from the guidance of President Donald Trump, who tweeted last Tuesday that California owed the money back to the federal government.
“California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars.” Trump tweeted. “We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”
Newsom set off a wave of confusion about the future of the $77 billion high-speed rail in his State of the State speech last Tuesday, announcing he would focus first on connecting the Central Valley. While he didn’t outright cancel the route from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, the wording sent mixed signals and news spread that the project was scaled back.
“The current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long,” Newsom said in his speech.
Still, he added, “Abandoning the high-speed rail means we will have wasted billions and billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises, partially-fulfilled commitments and lawsuits to show for it.”
As the Department of Transportation indicated, lawsuits may be coming anyways. But California already spent about $2.5 billion on the Central Valley phase and is on track to meet the rest of the grant’s requirements, Capital Public Radio reported.
By Tuesday evening, it was clear political warfare was afoot. Newsom tweeted back to Trump that California would not be returning the money and that “the train is leaving the station — better get on board! (Also, desperately searching for some wall $$??)”
The California governor does have some evidence that points to continued plans for the full rail by appointing his economic development director Lenny Mendonca to chair the High-Speed Rail Authority. Still, he was criticized for not understanding the consequences of his words.
“Newsom and his staff sent exactly the message they intended,” the Sacramento Bee wrote in a scathing editorial that called him “Gov. Gaslight.”
“Then, for whatever reason, it seems they got cold feet and decided to blame the media for reporting the governor’s words,” the paper stated.
Whatever the initial intention of Newsom’s words, California funding is once again caught in the crosshairs of the president. He wanted to make the point that the high-speed rail project needed transparency and to limit cost overruns. But thanks to the stumbled rollout, the likelihood for more delays and ballooned costs has only increased.