transit woes

The Battle Over High-Speed Rail Money Is Part of Trump’s War on California

Federal money for high-speed rail is the latest pawn in an extended fight between the Golden State and the Trump administration. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

It’s no big secret that California is a place that Republicans love to hate. And given the state’s on-again, off-again reputation as a social-policy laboratory and a pioneer in progressive politics, it’s no surprise that conservatives elsewhere easily fall into the old habit of treating the Golden State as a pestiferous breeding ground for godless tree-hugging hippies who conspire with illegal immigrants and other underclass elements to rip off businesses and productive individuals to subsidize their profligate lifestyles.

California’s current status, confirmed richly in the 2018 midterms, as a state that is dominated politically by Democrats and is wildly hostile to President Trump has just intensified GOP attacks on the Left Coast. Add in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s status as the congresswoman representing Hippie Central, San Francisco, and you have the perfect MAGA target.

And so when newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom announced he planned to scale back the financially and logistically troubled high-speed rail project that his predecessors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown had championed, Trump was ready to pounce:

Trump was alluding to a grant California had been given by the Obama administration back in 2010 as part of its “stimulus package,” which included a national push for high-speed rail. Around $2.5 billion has already been spent, under close federal supervision. But $929 million of the grant has yet to be drawn down, and to make it clear Trump wasn’t just bluffing, his administration sent word earlier this week that it was “canceling” the money, per CBS:

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) intends to cancel millions of dollars in federal grant funds designated for the California High-Speed Rail project.

The FRA intends to cancel $929 million in grant funds that have yet to be paid to the project which was meant to connect between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Moreover, the FRA echoed Trump’s demand that California send back the $2.5 billion in federal funds already spent on the project, as the Los Angeles Times reported:

The Transportation Department also said it was “actively exploring every legal option” to get back an additional $2.5-billion grant that is being used to finance the construction of 119 miles of rail line in the Central Valley.

The two federal grants represent about one-fourth of all the funding for the project to date — money critical to completing the Central Valley portion and finishing environmental reviews for other segments between San Francisco and Los Angeles. If the funds are lost or tied up in a long legal battle, the state would probably have to either make up the money elsewhere or further curtail the project.

Experts on federal-state relations say this clawback effort is legally murky at best:

“This does seem unprecedented,” said Eloise Pasachoff, a law professor specializing in federal grants at the Georgetown University Law Center. “It is common to take money back that grantees misspent. I am unaware of any time when an agency has threatened to terminate a grant because a grantee is not on target to achieve the substantive goals the grant was meant to achieve.”

What most complicates the Feds’ case for going after the money is that Newsom hotly denies he’s “killed” or “abandoned” the overall project. All he’s really said is that finishing the original project right now isn’t feasible, and that he wants to focus on the Central Valley portion of the system that’s already under construction. Once the whole mess gets into court (which it undoubtedly will), this little detail could cause Team Trump problems in seeking to cancel the unobligated dollars, much less clawing back money already spent.

But never satisfied with an argument he cannot link to his broader obsessions (often to the consternation of his lawyers), Trump has escalated the battle with California over high-speed rail money by suggesting its money he could spend on his precious border wall:

That’s definitely not true, but it certainly does lend credence to Newsom’s claim about Trump’s motives:

“It’s no coincidence that the administration’s threat comes 24 hours after California led 16 states in challenging the president’s farcical ‘national emergency,’” California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement. “This is clear political retribution by President Trump, and we won’t sit idly by. This is California’s money, and we are going to fight for it.”

It helps Trump that despite Schwarzenegger’s original sponsorship of the project, most California Republicans these days are strongly opposed to high-speed rail. Now they can lustfully join in the attacks on their own state — on behalf of the virtuous farmers and suburbanites their shrinking ranks represent in Sacramento and Washington — against the socialists and America-haters who are ruining the once-Golden State with their crazy and expensive schemes for dragging Californians out of their cars and off their planes.

Battle Over High-Speed Rail Part of Trump War on California