SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – President Donald Trump’s nascent administration has sent mixed signals when it comes to California’s polarizing project to build the United States’ first high-speed rail system.
While California’s Republican congressional delegation may view Trump’s stint in the Oval Office as a unique opportunity to withdraw funding and federal support from a project they have long maligned as a vast boondoggle, recent comments from the president and his professed commitment to infrastructure have supporters of California high-speed rail wondering whether he represents an enemy or ally.
“It’s too early to know what the Trump administration will do,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “But the fact that he recently spoke about high-speed rail in a positive light is a good sign.”
When Trump met with executives from assorted American airline companies, he lamented the lack of high-speed rail in the United State.
“You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” Trump reportedly said during the meeting. "I don’t want to compete with your business, but we don’t have one fast train.”
It’s a complaint Trump reiterated on the campaign trail, using America’s lack of high-speed rail as an example of failed policies.
The president also promised a huge infrastructure package in his first speech on Election Night, prompting some bullet-train supporters to hold out hope Trump would prove of valuable assistance.
That hope dissipated significantly after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a Trump appointee, withheld a $647 million grant from Caltrain that was going to be used to electrify part of its track between San Jose and San Francisco.
The withdrawal, which Caltrain officials acknowledged in a Feb. 17 statement “jeopardized the viability of the project,” occurred after California’s 14-member GOP congressional delegation sent a letter to Chao maligning the high-speed rail project and asking to pause the disbursement of the federal grant.
Caltrain is distinct from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and was slated to share the electrified track once high-speed rail was ready to concentrate on the San Jose-San Francisco segment. Now with the deferment of the grant, the future of that project – which figured to assist both agencies – is shrouded in doubt.
Despite these setbacks, the rail authority has already spent $3 billion on the project and construction on some of the fundamental aspects of the projects, like bridges and culverts, is already underway.
“We’re moving on down the track on this project,” Alley said. “We’re building a transportation for the future that will transform this entire state.”
The rail authority further said it does not need federal funds to bring high-speed rail to fruition.
Instead, the rail authority plans on gathering funds from the bonds approved in 2008 – when California voters approved the project – and funds diverted from the state’s cap-and-trade program.
The cap-and-trade auctions have not been as lucrative for state coffers as some had initially hoped, but the state will allocate $1.2 billion from the proceeds of last year’s auction to the rail authority.
Michael Cohen, director of California’s Department of Finance, recently announced the sale of bonds authorized by Proposition 1A – which set the project in motion – and transfer about $2.6 billion to the rail authority.
Still, questions abound about whether it’s sufficient.