President Donald Trump said that California should return the $3.5 billion it spent on a bullet train project that appeared to be abandoned by new Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“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,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Feb. 13.
“We want that money back now. Whole project is a ‘green’ disaster!”
Newsom responded, saying: “Fake news. We’re building high-speed rail, connecting the Central Valley and beyond. This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back. The train is leaving the station—better get on board!”
California has spent over $5 billion on the project, which was approved by voters as Proposition 1A in 2008.
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
Newsom said during his first State of the State speech on Feb. 12 that the high-speed rail project “would cost too much and take too long.”
When it was launched, the total cost for the train, which was slated to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles and ease serious gridlock in the region, was estimated at $40 billion.
Ballooning costs attributed to inflation, mismanagement, and other issues sent the price tag soaring, with estimates between $98.5 billion and $118 billion and no end to the project in sight.
Federal authorities granted a deadline extension until December 2022, but California’s state auditor, Elaine Howle, said in a report (pdf) in November 2018 that the state was at risk of not reaching even the extended deadline.
“Missing the deadline could expose the State to the risk of having to pay back as much as $3.5 billion in federal funds,” she wrote.
Newsom said that he still wants to build high-speed rail and plans to build a track between Merced and Bakersfield, two cities with significantly smaller populations than Los Angeles and San Francisco, calling it “phase one” of a larger project.
Merced has a population of just over 83,000 as of 2017 while Bakersfield has a population of about 380,000. San Francisco and Los Angeles have a combined population of nearly 5 million.
“I know that some critics will say this is a ‘train to nowhere.’ But that’s wrong and offensive,” Newsom said during his speech. “We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for California,” Newsom added on Twitter.
For those who want to walk away: Abandoning high speed rail means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it. I’m not interested in sending $3.5B in federal funding–exclusively allocated for HSR–back to the White House.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) February 12, 2019
About the federal money, he added: “I’m not interested in sending $3.5B in federal funding—exclusively allocated for HSR [high-speed rail]—back to the White House.”
While Newsom voiced plans for building the first phase, it’s unclear what else is planned.
Rebecca Saltzman, the vice president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors, told the Los Angeles Times that the next step would be connecting the line, if it’s built, to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
She said Newsom’s tepid enthusiasm on the project didn’t bode well, especially compared to former Gov. Jerry Brown.
“We need to see a champion emerge,” Saltzman said. “We need to keep the momentum going.”
Paul Dyson, the president of the nonprofit Rail Passenger Assn. of California and Nevada, said that the way Newsom spoke to Trump would likely affect future projects.
“Even if he didn’t cancel the project, he used such a negative tone that if he is to go to the federal government, or to private enterprise, to look for new funds, they’re not going to be very enthused,” Dyson said. “If he sends such a negative message, why would they get on board?”