Governor scales back high-speed rail project as President Trump calls for CA to repay federal funding

A train rides through the tracks going really fast.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in his State of the State address Feb. 12 that he plans to scale back the California high-speed rail project days before President Donald Trump called for California to repay $2.5 billion in federal funding for the project.

In his address, Newsom said he intended to first build the section of the railway that runs between Merced and Bakersfield, and then connect the Central Valley to the rest of the state. Newsom’s rationale for his decision to scale back the project included a lack of funding and transparency surrounding the project as well as the time necessary to build the full railway.

“The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America as well as some of the longest commutes,” Newsom said in the address. “And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. … High-speed rail is much more than a train project. It’s about economic transformation and unlocking the enormous potential of the valley.”

In response to this decision, California High-Speed Rail Authority, or CHSRA, CEO Brian Kelly issued a statement supporting Newsom and the CHSRA is ready to “expand the project’s economic impact in the Central Valley.”

The $77 billion project faces opposition from Trump, who is looking to take back approximately $3.5 billion in federal funding for the railway, which includes $2.5 billion that has already been spent on the project and the cancellation of a $929 million grant to the CHSRA, according to an article in The New York Times.

The CHSRA is currently drafting a response to the Federal Railroad Administration letter “threatening federal funds” dedicated to the project, according to Kelly.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an email he feels the governor’s decision to scale back the project is “unfortunate,” as a high-speed railway would be a more “environmentally friendly way to travel.”

“While there was never any plans for high-speed rail to have a stop in Berkeley, being in close proximity to San Francisco would make it much easier for residents to travel quickly to the Central Valley and Los Angeles,” Arreguín said in an email. “Having a state that is better connected would be economically beneficial.”

UC Berkeley professor of transportation engineering Mark Hansen said he believes the high-speed railway is more expensive than it is worth. Hansen added that he was never sure that former governor Jerry Brown’s vision of the railway was “really achievable.”

“The whole thing is very problematic from the beginning,” Hansen said. “It was a very expensive plan, and it was never clear where all the money was coming from.”

UC Berkeley lecturer in city and regional planning Peter Albert, who supports Newsom’s decision, compared the cost of the high-speed railway to the BART system. He said that while 50 years ago, many fiscal conservatives were concerned about BART’s cost, today, it is “essential to the Bay Area.”

According to Albert, one of the benefits of the high-speed railway is that it gives California the opportunity to show its commitment to providing housing for its residents. Albert said there is “no better place” to build affordable housing than around areas with public transit, where cars are not the only option for transportation.

“Newsom is calling attention to how we can make the smartest investments in the most strategic ways,” Albert said.

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju ‏.