Why did California Governor Gavin Newsom stir up the proverbial hornets' nest with his vague and confusing comments regarding the state’s high-speed rail (HSR) plans last week? That’s become the $920 million question many are asking themselves now as President Donald Trump has threatened to—perhaps illegally—cancel a sizable grant already allocated to the project following days of confusing debate over the future of the high-speed line. During a “state of the state” speech last week, Newsom provided unclear backing for completing the full project as approved by California voters in 2008 when they passed Proposition 1A, a ballot measure that allocated $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds for the planning and construction of an 800-mile high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles. During his speech, Newsom said:
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. I wish there were. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield. I know that some critics will say this is a ‘train to nowhere.’ But that’s wrong and offensive. The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better.The comments were widely interpreted as a death knell for the L.A. and San Francisco spurs of the line, a characterization the governor disputed in the aftermath of the speech. Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click, speaking to the press, offered the following clarification: “The state will continue undertaking the broader project—completing the bookend projects and finishing the environmental review for the [San Francisco] to L.A. leg—that would allow the project to continue seeking other funding streams." But by that point, the damage had been done. Speaking via Twitter, President Trump said, “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars,” adding, “They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!" It only gets worse from there. The Los Angeles Times reported that an additional $2.5 billion in additional federal grant funding has been thrown into question as Trump Administration officials are “actively exploring every legal option” for taking the money back in light of slow progress as well as the governor’s statements. The funds are currently being put to use building the 119-mile route that Newsom has pledged to finish. The Times reported further that Ronald Batory, the chief of the Federal Railroad Administration who issued the grants to California in 2009 and 2010, penned a legal analysis of the situation to California High-Speed Rail Authority chief executive Brian Kelly stating that California “has materially failed to comply with the terms of the [grant] agreement and has failed to make reasonable progress on the project.” Batory further alleged that California had failed to deliver $100 million in matching funds for the project that were due in late 2018. Batory’s missive also referenced Newsom’s speech directly, saying that the governor has instigated a “significant retreat from the state’s initial vision and commitment.” Experts disagree whether the federal government can legally take back money that has already been allocated or spent, but that has not stopped President Trump from continuing his attacks on the state’s rail plan this week. Either way, the long-held and hard-fought vision of California high-speed rail has been thrown into doubt. The uncertain news has reverberated across the state, including in San Francisco, where the structurally damaged Salesforce Transit Center sits vacant, with an entire subterranean level laying in wait for a high-speed rail line that now might never come.