[guest post by JVW]
The saga of California’s ill-fated High Speed Rail (HSR) project to at long last link citizens of Lerdo and Chowchilla via a 70-minute bullet train has unsurprisingly taken another interesting, if totally predictable, turn. No sooner did Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledge that the initial plans were a product of fantasyland and had to be brought back to reality (while still trying to assure his Big Government supporters that he hasn’t totally abandoned HSR once and for all) than his arch-nemesis President Donald Trump announced that California ought to return nearly one billion dollars in federal grant money that had been doled out to the state for the project.
As we have chronicled here in the past, the HSR project is a colossal mess of misplaced idealism, cynical opportunism, and egocentric legacy-making that should never have been given the greenlight to begin with. But with the vote to authorize the issuance of bonds coming in 2008, an election year dominated by Democrats, coupled with the new Obama Administration’s obsession with spending “stimulus” money on infrastructure no matter how questionable the project, the Golden State was able to finagle $3.5 billion in initial grant money to begin work on the Bakersfield to Madera portion of the line (estimated cost at the time for that segment was $6 billion, and it quickly ballooned to over $10 billion), with the promise of additional federal matching funds once that part of the project had been completed.
Now the wishful thinking and duplicity of the HSR advocates is obvious, and we’re faced with a huge white elephant project that has almost no feasible path to completion. After serving as the foil to Governor Newsom’s progressive white knight in the state of the state address last week, President Trump is striking back:
California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project after having spent and wasted many billions of dollars. They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now. Whole project is a “green” disaster!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2019
The demand for the entire $3.5 billion probably stems from Gov. Newsom’s careless and offhanded quip in the address, “With all due respect, I have no interest in sending back $3.5 billion of federal funding that was allocated to this project to President Donald Trump.” The reality of the situation is that the $3.5 billion was advanced specifically for the Bakersfield-Madera segment, so provided that is eventually completed the state will have met its obligation, as long the feds are willing to overlook the California HSR Authority blowing by the initial timetable and cost estimates. Unfortunately for fast choo-choo enthusiasts, however, not all of that sum has been distributed yet, so President Trump’s Department of Transportation has seen fit to fire a shot across the Governor’s bow:
.@USDOTFRA announces it intends to cancel $929 million in Federal grant funds yet to be paid for the California High-Speed Rail project envisioned to connect the L.A. Basin to the San Francisco Bay Area. https://t.co/xTS2ky5MUx
— TransportationGov (@USDOT) February 19, 2019
Naturally, the Newsom Administration is up in arms about the federal spigot being shut off, understanding that would imperil the completion of the Central Valley segment. So this whole mess is the perfect encapsulation of California vs. Trump in 2019: philosophical differences and petty grievances, adjudicated by incessant lawsuits. I think all of you can guess whose side I am taking in this scuffle, though it is painfully fascinating to watch Gov. Newsom and his allies go through their “we can’t build HSR right now but we’ll be able to do it eventually if given enough time” gyrations. What a colossal mess, and those of us in the Golden State would do well to remember this fiasco next time some film-flam artists suggest a massive project with wishful timetables and uncertain financing.
Cross-posted in The Jury Talks Back because we’re discussing you-know-who.