The state finance department has cleared the way for a $713-million state grant to electrify a commuter rail system in the Bay Area, ending a political battle started earlier this year by California Republicans in the U.S. House.
State Finance Director Michael Cohen sent a letter last week to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, approving a plan to draw the $713 million from a bond fund that voters approved in 2008 for the state's bullet train project.
The electrification project is supposed to increase passenger capacity, reduce travel time and cut diesel emissions on the 50-mile route from San Jose to San Francisco. Eventually, the bullet train would use the same electrical system and the same tracks, creating a rationale for the high-speed rail authority paying a large chuck of the cost.
The project also relies on a $647-million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Opponents of the bullet train, including all 14 of California's Republican members of the House, sought to block the federal grant, arguing that the electrification effort is really part of a mismanaged bullet train project.
The complicated fight began in late January when the Republicans asked federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to deny the grant until a financial audit was completed on the bullet train. Chao delayed making a decision, which forced the state to hold up its grant. The grant had worked its way through the Obama administration, and a preliminary approval was issued by an Obama appointee in the final hours of the administration.
The state Democratic leadership expressed public outrage and went into overdrive to protect the electrification project. They said it was not related to the high-speed rail and that blocking it would cost the state thousands of jobs.
State rail authority Chairman Dan Richard called the Republicans irresponsible. Gov. Jerry Brown obtained a private meeting with Chao to discuss the matter.
Last week, Chao said she would agree to issue a full funding agreement that would provide for the grant in stages, releasing the first $100 million. Days later, Cohen approved the state's funding plan for its grant.
The approval of the grant appears to show the limits of influence that the California Republicans have with the Trump administration. So far, Trump and Chao have given no public indication that they will directly support the bullet train.
The electrification project will cost nearly $2 billion and replace at least some of Caltrain's diesel locomotives with electric trains that can accelerate faster, thereby reducing travel times.
The bullet train project plans to share tracks and the electrical system with Caltrain, though exactly when it would begin operating is unclear. The $64-billion project faces a more than $40-billion shortfall to build the future system from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
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