GOP Seeks Clawback of California Bullet Train Funds

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

(CN) – A Republican member of California’s congressional delegation introduced a bill Wednesday that would require California to return the approximately $3.5 billion in federal funds already spent on the state’s embattled high-speed rail project.

Doug LaMalfa of the 1st Congressional District introduced the High Speed Refund Act, the latest salvo in the sharply partisan battle over the fate of America’s largest infrastructure project.

“After countless blunders, skyrocketing costs, and more uncertainty than ever, it’s time to cut our losses and kill California’s misguided high-speed rail project,” LaMalfa said in a statement.

The congressman said the project needs to be abandoned in light of ballooning costs, with latest estimates to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles swelling to $77 billion, more than double initial estimates when voters approved the project in 2008.

But the latest pitched battle was touched off after Gov. Gavin Newsom said he saw no path to building a system capable of connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco in the near future, and the state would focus on building a 119-mile segment in the Central Valley.

Republicans in the state government and in the federal government, many of whom are long standing opponents of the project, seized on the comments as proof promises to taxpayers could not be kept.

President Donald Trump fired off a tweet labeling the project a “green disaster” and demanded $3.5 billion in grants be returned to federal coffers.

“They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars,” Trump said.

Aside from demanding refunds, the Trump administration sent a letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority in February to say it was withholding nearly $1 billion in additional funding for the project.

Rail authority CEO Brian Kelly responded in a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration on Tuesday, calling the proposed clawback of funds a “disastrous policy.”

“It is hard to imagine how your agency – or the taxpayers – might benefit from partially constructed assets sitting stranded in the Central Valley of California,” Kelly said.

Indeed, several large elevated sections of railway track have already been constructed on the outskirts of Fresno and other Central Valley towns and would be abandoned should the project come to a premature conclusion.

Construction continues on an elevated section of high-speed rail track near downtown Fresno, California. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

State Senator Scott Weiner, a Democrat from San Francisco, criticized LaMalfa’s bill, saying it would directly harm California taxpayers.

“It never ceases to amaze me how often CA’s GOP Congressional delegation tries to suck money out of the state they represent,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

But LaMalfa said the $3.5 billion already provided to California by the federal government should be repurposed to highway and freight projects with more economic viability.

“Undertaking the HSR project was a huge mistake, and taxpayers deserve a refund,” he said.

Newsom has tried to walk back his comments, given during his first State of the State address, saying he remains committed to the project but wants to focus on completing the Central Valley segment before contemplating a fully operating system connecting California’s two largest metropolitan areas.

Kelly gave some insight into the governor’s plans in the letter to the railroad administration, saying completing the track between Merced and Bakersfield would lay the groundwork “to ultimately connect a revitalized Central Valley to Silicon Valley and Southern California.”

With Democrats in charge of the House, there is little chance LaMalfa’s bill will make it to Trump’s desk. But it indicates the willingness of Trump and congressional Republicans to use various tools to undermine the infrastructure project.

California’s Democratic congressional delegation has remained mostly quiet on the fate of high-speed rail, although freshman Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Fresno, called high-speed rail an “important component” of the nation’s overall infrastructure program.

Cox also criticized Newsom’s speech, accusing the governor of “muddling the message.”

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