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California's bullet train authority decides to buy American after all

The California High Speed Rail Authority has reversed its plans to buy foreign parts for its trains, saying in a letter to federal regulators that it was withdrawing a request for a waiver from the Buy American Act.

The change on Thursday came after Rep. John Garamendi (D-Fairfield) and other Democratic lawmakers became outraged over the plan, disclosed last week, to import the most important parts of future rail cars, including motors, brakes, wheels, axles, the aluminum shells and undercarriages.

The reversal comes amid growing political uncertainty about the fortunes of the $64-billion project to build a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The loss of the White House gives Republican opponents of the project a stronger hand to end it, though nobody is sure what President-elect Donald Trump thinks about the project, according to Republican staff in Congress.

In letters to the Federal Railroad Administration, the rail authority had said the parts could not be made in the U.S. or would cost more if they were.

That argument crashed into opposition from unions and lawmakers who have spent their careers attempting to force public agencies to buy their goods from factories that create American jobs.

“The argument that I got from the high-speed rail authority was that it couldn’t be built in the United States, and the reply I gave started out with [an impolite term for ‘rubbish’] and went on from there,” Garamendi said.

“The policy of the authority,” Garamendi said, “must be that this rail system will be built in the U.S.”

Garamendi said rail authority Chairman Dan Richard told him last week that neither he nor the rail authority board knew anything about the plan to import the train parts.

The authority formalized the commitment to withdraw the waiver request on Thursday in a letter to Sarah Feinberg, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The letter says the authority will require “full compliance” with Buy American requirements. It seems, however, to allow wiggle room to request future waivers, noting that solicitations for train parts will include “scoring incentives” to encourage bidders not to ask for Buy American waivers.

“Our hope is that this approach will encourage the United States manufacturing industry to rise to the challenge of producing what is needed to build high-speed trains in America,” authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said.

Garamendi and his allies, Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), praised the announcement.

“It is vitally important that these parts are produced and manufactured in America, so that we continue to maintain job growth and economic development,” Matsui said in a statement.

At least four major rail corporations could build the bullet trains at U.S. plants, including one near Sacramento that Siemens has proposed expanding to make rail cars for the project, Garamendi said.

The massive AFL-CIO, which represents the largest industrial unions in the nation, said it was “extremely pleased” about the potential for job creation.

“California high-speed rail is one of the most important and forward-looking infrastructure projects underway in this country,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the union’s Transportation Trades Department. “We have been proud to support this project and defend it against political attacks by opponents in the state and in Washington, D.C.”

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @rvartabedian

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