In Halting Calif. Rail Funds, Trump Sends Multiple Messages

In Halting Calif. Rail Funds, Trump Sends Multiple Messages
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file
In Halting Calif. Rail Funds, Trump Sends Multiple Messages
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file
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Fiscal conservatives and the fossil-fuel industry are cheering President Trump’s decision to publicly whack California and slash nearly $1 billion in federal funds from what opponents long ago sarcastically dubbed the Golden State’s “high-speed train to nowhere.”

Politically, Trump has hit a 2020 messaging trifecta with the move. First, he escalated his ongoing war of words with lefty California, which launched a 16-state lawsuit challenging the president’s national-emergency declaration for the border wall. Second, he used the state’s admitted failure on the $77 billion rail project against new Democratic governor – and harsh Trump critic -- Gavin Newsom. To round out his ticket, Trump has cast Green New Dealers as fringy socialist spendthrifts whose most vaunted pet projects are so unrealistic and costly they can never get off the ground.

So much for Trump’s State of the Union call to swear off political retribution. With Bernie Sanders’ return to the race for the White House, the 2020 campaign is already shaping up as a prize fight between socialism and nationalism – a contest Trump supporters believe he can win  and the sort of pugilistic fray his allies love.

“The [administration] is absolutely right in ending already scheduled cash flows and seeking taxpayer reimbursement for the funds squandered on the ill-conceived California high-speed rail projects,” said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government.

The American Energy Alliance, a free-market organization representing oil and gas industry interests, was downright gleeful.

“The Trump administration and [Department of Transportation] Secretary Elaine Chao are right to stop federal funding for the green boondoggle that was the California High Speed Rail project,” said Thomas Pyle, the group’s president. “Not one additional red cent of federal taxpayer money should go towards this liberal pipedream.”

“If the greens can’t get high-speed rail off the ground in liberal California, it is folly to think the Green New Dealers can make it work anywhere else,” Pyle added, referring to the mammoth undertaking as “green pork.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who, as the top California Republican, has lambasted the state’s “bullet-train boondoggle” for years, was equally ecstatic with the announcement, praising the “prudent decision protecting hardworking American taxpayers.”

“At every turn, the California High Speed Rail Authority has mismanaged and misled Californians on the viability of the project. Its budget has ballooned by the billions, projected ridership numbers have proved exaggerated, and the private investment that was promised never materialized,” McCarthy said in a statement. “And throughout it all, the authority has gone to great lengths to keep these facts from California and American taxpayers. … It is time to move on from the broken high-speed rail project and redirect our efforts to infrastructure projects that work for Californians.”

In one fell swoop, the Trump administration move rescinds nearly $929 million in federal grant funds, terminating a 2011 agreement signed by President Obama to provide the money for the system that state Democratic officials envisioned would connect San Diego to San Francisco.

Additionally, the Transportation Department announced that it is also actively exploring “every available legal option” to seek the return of $2.5 billion in funds the federal government previously granted to California for the project.

Particularly troubling for Newsom, who is believed to harbor future presidential ambitions, is Trump’s capitalizing on the newly minted governor’s admission that the eight-year-old train project, with its tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns and endless environmental lawsuits and red tape, had long ago gone off the rails.

The move comes in the wake of Newsom’s announcement in his Feb. 12 State of the State address that the initiative is abusing taxpayer dollars and will not be constructed as planned.

“But let’s be real,” Newsom said in his speech to the mostly Democratic-controlled legislature. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long. There has been too little oversight and not enough transparency. … Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”

Instead of getting behind the full rail line, a pet project of his predecessor Jerry Brown, the governor decided to build only a single segment from Bakersfield to Merced in the Central Valley. In doing so, he transformed the plan into one the Trump administration could easily cast as a having a radically different purpose from the original, federally funded award. Moreover, it’s not exactly what liberals who supported the project had in mind. Bakersfield and Merced, noted the New York magazine puckishly, are “two small cities that, it’s fair to say, most coastal metropolitan Californians happily visit rarely or never.”

Rank-and-file Democrats in the state immediately decried Newsom’s high-profile admission, attacking it on Twitter as a disappointing politically expedient move. The Los Angeles Times editorialized that abandoning the project entirely would be a "tragic mistake."

Former Rep. Jeff Denham, a Central Valley California Republican who lost a hard-fought contest to Rep. Josh Harder in November, had chaired the House rail subcommittee that for years tried to find a way to quash the bullet-train project. He ultimately determined it couldn’t be done through an act of Congress.

But with just a few words from the governor, the Trump administration had its opening. The afternoon of Newsom’s remarks, Trump called on the state to return $3.5 billion in funds as the media fueled a narrative that Newsom was completely abandoning the project – a charge his team repeatedly tried to knock down.

Late Tuesday, Ronald Batory, the Trump-appointed chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that issued the grants in 2009 and 2010, announced that California is not meeting its requirements and deadlines for progress on the project and failed to take corrective actions after regulators raised concerns in 2017 and 2018.

In a letter to California High-Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Brian Kelly, Batory said the state “has materially failed to comply with the terms of the agreement and has failed to make reasonable progress on the project.”

Newsom vowed late Tuesday to go to federal court to try to halt the administration’s move, arguing that Trump was taking action as retribution for Monday’s announcement that California is leading a 16-state legal battle against the president’s national-emergency declaration to authorize funding of his border wall.

“It’s no coincidence that the administration’s threat comes 24 hours after California led 16 states in challenging the president’s farcical ‘national emergency,’” Newsom said in a written statement. “The president even tied the two issues together in a tweet this morning. This is political retribution by President Trump, and we won’t sit idly by. This is California’s money, and we are going to fight for it.”

Earlier Tuesday, Trump made no bones about framing the debate as a failed green project vs. law-and-order-boosting border barrier. “The failed Fast Train project in California, where the costs overruns are become world record-setting, is hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!” he tweeted.

Conservative activist Charlie Kirk, a close friend of Donald Trump Jr., quickly applauded and distilled the multi-layered issued to an us-vs.-them clash over immigration — “them” being radical liberals in California:

“As long as California thinks they can continue to defy federal immigration law and harbor sanctuary cities we shouldn’t fund their stupid, wasteful and horrific high-speed rail project, which is billions over budget and way behind,” Kirk tweeted. “Cancel the funding, bravo @realDonaldTrump!”

Some 8,500 like-minded conservatives nodded in agreement, liking the tweet.

Susan Crabtree is a veteran Washington reporter who has spent two decades covering the White House and Congress.

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