Battle Over Federal Funds for California Bullet Train Intensifies

High speed rail constructionThe battle between California and the Trump administration over $3.4 billion in federal funding that was committed nearly a decade ago to the state’s bullet-train project escalated last week when a key state leader rejected federal criticisms of the project’s progress.

California High-Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Brian Kelly sent two letters defending Gov. Gavin Newsom’s January remarks that he would focus on completing a 119-mile segment now being built in the Central Valley – backing away from a promise to state voters in 2008 and to the federal government in 2009 and 2010 to build a statewide bullet-train system. Kelly said the state was comporting with key federal regulations.

The limited segment linking Bakersfield and Merced is expected to cost up to $18 billion. Were it ever built, the costs of the originally envisioned statewide bullet-train system – ranging along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego and inland to Sacramento – could have been 10 times as much or more. The cost of each end of the Los Angeles to San Francisco segment was so extreme that in 2012, the rail authority gave up on true high-speed rail in those links – opting for a “blended” system that relied on regular rail to cover the final 45 miles or so into each of the population centers.

The Trump administration has already canceled a $929 million grant issued to the project in 2010 by the Obama administration. It has indicated it hopes to recover $2.5 billion the federal government has already allocated to California as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package on the grounds that the project is far behind schedule and no longer meets promises of sound planning and financial viability made to secure the $2.5 billion.

But Kelly argued that the Federal Railroads Administration under the Obama administration and for the first two years of Trump’s administration concluded that the project was meeting minimum benchmarks to qualify for federal funding.

“Any clawback of federal funds already expended on this project would be disastrous policy,” Kelly wrote. “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.”

LAO questioned project’s finances in 2010

Kelly’s letter hinted at but did not explicitly suggest the DOT’s attempts to recover the $2.5 billion were motivated by President Donald Trump’s two-year-plus war of words with California’s governors, which began under Jerry Brown and has continued with Gavin Newsom. In that span, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra has filed or joined in nearly 50 lawsuits against the Trump administration. Newsom has called the targeting of California’s project politically motivated.

Kelly’s argument that the “clawback” of that much in federal funds would be unprecedented appears correct. But the state’s arguments are weakened by the difficulty it will face in asserting it acquired the federal funds while acting in good faith. Despite telling the U.S. Department of Transportation repeatedly, beginning in 2009, that the bullet-train project was in good shape financially, rail authority officials couldn’t persuade state watchdogs that was the case in the same time frame.

In January 2010, the Legislative Analyst’s Office warned the authority didn’t have a legal business plan because it anticipated that revenue or ridership guarantees could be provided to attract private investors to help fund the project. Because such guarantees amounted to a promise of subsidies if forecasts weren’t met, they were illegal under Proposition 1A, the 2008 state ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the then-$33 billion project.

The LAO and the California State Auditor’s Office have been uniformly critical of the project for a decade.

Rep. McCarthy: Move $ to other transportation projects

If the Trump administration takes steps to recover the $2.5 billion by withholding unrelated federal dollars bound for California, the dispute seems certain to end up in federal court.

Meanwhile, the California congressman whose district has arguably been most affected by early construction of the bullet train on Thursday introduced a bill that would “repurpose” all $3.4 billion in federal funds for the project to water infrastructure projects in California and other Western states. The measure by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, faces long odds in a chamber in which Democrats retook control in January.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California to pull plug on billion-dollar bullet train

High Speed Rail ConstructionCalifornia Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday he is pulling the plug on the state’s massive high-speed rail project from Los Angeles to San Francisco that was more than a decade behind schedule and billions in the red.

“Let’s be real,” Newsom said in his first State of the State address. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency.”

Newsom added that while California has “the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield,” “there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.”

The embattled $77-billion bullet train has been an embarrassment for the Golden State and has been plagued by problems almost from the start.

The idea, long championed by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, is years behind schedule with the latest estimate for completion set for 2033. …

Click here to read the full article from Fox News

On California Farms’ Water Issues, Congress Needs Food for Thought

Row crops growing in California.

When it comes to water and agriculture, California is upside-down.

That’s what historian Carey McWilliams wrote in his 1949 book, “California: The Great Exception.” Most of the water is in the northern part, and most of the best land for farming is further south.

But this “contrariness of nature” worked to humanity’s advantage in two ways, McWilliams wrote, because it stimulated inventiveness and technological achievement, and because “the long dry season is an enormous agricultural asset.”

That assumes you agree that abundant food production is a good thing, a view that in recent years has become unfashionable in places like Venezuela, Zimbabwe and San Francisco.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, described a stunning meeting he had with representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists in the summer of 2002 about the future of the San Joaquin Valley. “Their goal was to remove 1.3 million acres of farmland from production,” he said. “From Merced all the way down to Bakersfield, and on the entire west side of the Valley as well as part of the east side, productive agriculture would end, and the land would return to some ideal state of nature.”

That plan was moved forward when the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed by Congress in 1992. Under the law, 260 billion gallons of water on the Valley’s west side had to be diverted away from human uses and out to the environment.

Then a series of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act secured protected status for smelt in 2008 and salmon in 2009, and that was enough to force the virtual shutdown of two major pumping stations that moved water to the Central Valley. Another lawsuit resulted in the San Joaquin River Settlement, later enacted by Congress at a cost of more than $1 billion to taxpayers, which diverted more water away from the Central Valley in an attempt to create salmon runs.

Farmers struggled to get by with groundwater, but in 2014, new California regulations limited that, too.

In 1949, McWilliams observed that if the Central Valley were a state, it would rank fifth in the nation for agricultural production. Today it has poverty and unemployment rates that would be right at home in the Great Depression.

And that’s why members of Congress from the region have repeatedly introduced legislation to adjust federal law in ways that would allow water to be restored to the Central Valley. The legislation passed the House several times only to die in the Senate.

Last year, Rep. David Valadao, R-Bakersfield, introduced it again, calling it the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. President Obama immediately threatened a veto, but in May, Valadao attached the bill as an amendment to an energy bill already passed by the Senate, and the House passed it. …

Click here to read the full story from the Daily News.