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Mayor says Merced stuck in the middle of high-speed rail fight between feds and state

Gov. Gavin Newsom: ‘Let’s level about the high-speed rail’

Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.
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Governor Gavin Newsom in Tuesday's State of the State address gave his vision for building high-speed rail in California.

In a dramatic move, the Trump administration announced Thursday it has canceled a nearly billion-dollar funding contract with the California bullet train, throwing the state’s troubled high-speed rail project further in doubt.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom immediately fired back, calling the move illegal and vowing to fight it in court.

The Federal Railroad Administration said it terminated a longstanding contract to pay the California High Speed Rail Authority $928,620,000 because California “has repeatedly failed to comply with the terms of the (2010) agreement and has failed to make reasonable progress on the project.

“Additionally, California has abandoned its original vision of a high-speed passenger rail service connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, which was essential to its applications for FRA grant funding.”

Trump previously tweeted that California “has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion.”

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said he and other Merced County representatives met at the end of April with representatives of FRA and the White House to discuss the rail and its importance in the central San Joaquin Valley Valley.

“It’s not a surprise that this is a stance the Trump Administration is taking,” he said. “Unfortunately, the people affected by the pulling back of the infrastructure is the people of the Central Valley and people of Merced.”

The Central Valley has been historically underprivileged with federal investments, he said, adding the rail dollars represent the largest contribution in recent memory.

Gov. Newsom responded defiantly Thursday afternoon.

“The Trump Administration’s action is illegal and a direct assault on California, our green infrastructure, and the thousands of Central Valley workers who are building this project,” he said. “Just as we have seen from the Trump Administration’s attacks on our clean air standards, our immigrant communities and in countless other areas, the Trump Administration is trying to exact political retribution on our state. “

“This is California’s money, appropriated by Congress, and we will vigorously defend it in court.”

FRA officials say they also are continuing to look at options for requiring the state to return a past $2.5 billion that California had received for the train project under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The FRA foreshadowed today’s announced decision two months ago, when it sent letters to state authorities laying out a case that state officials were failing to meet federal requirements for the money. The federal agency laid out its case again Thursday in a 25-page letter to Brian Kelly, head of the state high-speed rail authority.

The rail project recently underwent overhauls under new Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called the original plan bloated. Under Newsom, the state has scaled back its near-term aspirations and is focusing instead on building an initial line between Bakersfield and Merced.

State high speed rail officials did not immediately comment on the announcement. Those officials previously argued that they have met federal requirements for the project, which is under construction, and that they plan to continue forward even if the feds refuse the funding.

Rail Authority reported earlier this spring that it had about $2.2 billion cash on hand from state Proposition 1A bond funds and cap-and-trade greenhouse-gas revenues. Its budget called for about $1 billion to be spent by the end of the fiscal year in June.

That is not nearly the funds ultimately needed, though. A recent update report said it will cost $20 billion to finish and launch trains on the initial line from Merced to Bakersfield. The report forecast that trains likely would not be running on that initial segment until the end of 2028.

State officials have said they will have to find more future funding in order to ultimately extended the initial valley segment south to downtown Los Angeles and west to San Jose in the south Bay Area. The project includes a plan to electrify and speed up the Caltrain passenger rail system between San Jose and San Francisco.

In a statement Thursday, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, a bullet train critic, said the federal funding withdrawal is the beginning of the end for the project.

“They have torn up central California, destroyed thousands of acres of prime farmland and taken homes and businesses,” he said. “The question now is, how are they going to put it all back together before they spend all the money they have left and leave town. We are witnessing the beginning of the end.”

Merced Sun-Star reporter Thaddeus Miller contributed to this story.

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