Feds Give California Green Light for Bullet Train Environmental Review

An artist’s rendering of a bullet train gliding through a California city. (Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

(CN) – Plagued by a spate of setbacks and a federal government hostile to its mission, the California High-Speed Rail Authority was desperate for some good news.

It received a modest bit Thursday, with the Federal Railroad Administration announcing it will allow the high-speed rail authority to take the lead for all environmental analysis throughout the rail system.

The announcement may appear like a formality, but given the tendency of the Trump administration to fight the nation’s largest infrastructure project by any means necessary – including by trying to claw back distributed grants – the ability to handle environmental review ranks as a small but substantial victory.

“We’ve lost valuable time waiting with the FRA’s disengagement, so I am very thankful for this action, and I am hopeful this step is the beginning of a more collaborative and cooperative relationship prospectively,” said rail authority CEO Brian Kelly.  “We both gain from a strong partnership.”

The Trump administration announced in February it would take back nearly $1 billion in federal grants, saying California had failed to meet its obligations for the grant distributions.

At the time, Governor Gavin Newsom said the move was “clear political retribution” for California’s multifront resistance to a slew of Trump policies related to immigration and the environment.

California has since sued the federal government, saying the clawback of the funds is illegal. The matter is pending in federal court in San Francisco.

The rail authority said Thursday a cooperative stance from the federal government on environmental analysis will allow the state to review the entire proposed line from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Phase 1 of the project has long promised to connect the two coastal metropolises with trains capable of reaching 220 miles per hour, but Newsom said in his first major speech as governor that the project should be scaled back for the time being to focus on finishing a stretch of track in the Central Valley from Merced to Bakersfield.

However, the governor did promise to undertake environmental review for the entire stretch of track, a costly and imperative part of the process for the project.

Thursday’s announcement by the federal government puts the state one step closer to accomplishing that.

“The ability for us to conduct this environmental review and move the project forward will enable momentum and continued progress on this transformative mobility project,” said David Kim, California State Transportation Agency secretary.

The project has been beset by a series of cost overruns and delays. Initially expected to cost $33 billion, the price tag is now around $77 billion. The new estimate for when trains will connect LA and San Francisco is 2033.

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