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Trump is using high-speed rail as a weapon against California. Will it work?

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California’s troubled high-speed rail project.
(Los Angeles Times)

California’s $77-billion high-speed rail project has long been troubled, beset by cost overruns, delays and signs of mismanagement.

But in the last week, it also became a political football on the national stage, pitting new Gov. Gavin Newsom against President Trump, who has relished using the project to bash the state. Trump has erroneously said California is canceling the project, adding fuel to the fire.

Ten years after voters approved it, the project is $44 billion over budget and years behind schedule. A state audit in November blamed flawed decision-making, organizational faults and poor contract management by the California High Speed Rail Authority. Many don’t believe the train can complete the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the two hours and 40 minutes mandated in the bond measure.

Now, the bullet train is facing a whole host of new threats and has taken center stage in the Trump versus California drama.

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Here is a breakdown from the pages of The Times:

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Gavin Newsom speaks at the State of the State address.
(Associated Press)

Tuesday, Feb. 12 | ‘Let’s be real’

In his State of the State address, Newsom said that the project needed to be rethought and that the initial run would be within the Central Valley — not the San Francisco-to-L.A. route voters approved a decade ago.

“But let’s be real,” Newsom said in the speech to lawmakers. “The current project, as planned, would cost too much and respectfully take too long. There’s 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. However, we do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”

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In the hours that followed Newsom’s speech, Trump demanded that California return $3.5 billion in federal funds, and headlines proclaimed the Democratic governor was abandoning the ambitious project championed by his predecessors — a story line that Newsom denied as “fake news.”

Thursday, Feb. 14 | ‘A bit perplexed’

Newsom maintained that the entire rail system will eventually be built and said the media were overstating his State of the State comments.

In an interview with The Times, the governor said he is “a bit perplexed” by reporters’ misconstruing his words.

“I just think people in the media should pause before they run headlines and actually consider the facts and maybe even ask the person that’s stating things before they run with things,” Newsom said. “That’s the deep lesson I learned in this.”

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A high-speed rail replica train is seen in Sacramento.
(Associated Press)

Tuesday, Feb. 19 | ‘Fast train’

Trump started the day by attacking the high-speed rail project.

“California now wants to scale back their already failed ‘fast train’ project by substantially shortening the distance so that it no longer goes from L.A. to San Francisco. A different deal and record cost overruns. Send the Federal Government back the Billions of Dollars WASTED!” he wrote.

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“The failed Fast Train project in California, where the cost overruns are becoming world record setting, is hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!”

The Department of Transportation announced plans to cancel $929 million in grant funds.

The Transportation Department also said it was “actively exploring every legal option” to get back an additional $2.5-billion grant that is being used to finance construction of 119 miles of rail line in the Central Valley.

The two federal grants represent about one-fourth of all the funding for the project to date — money critical to completing the Central Valley portion and finishing environmental reviews for other segments between San Francisco and Los Angeles. If the funds are lost or tied up in a long legal battle, the state would probably have to either make up the money elsewhere or further curtail the project.

Newsom vowed to block the move, arguing that it was political payback by the Trump administration.

“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 statement, referring to Trump’s emergency declaration to secure funding for his wall on the Mexican border. “The President even tied the two issues together in a tweet this morning. This is clear 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.”

Wednesday, Feb. 20 | ‘Billions of Dollars WASTED’

Trump continued his attack on the bullet train. He acknowledged California was not killing the project (previously he’d erroneously claimed it was dead) but said the federal government should pull funding anyway, claiming the new route is going to be shorter.

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Times staff writers Ralph Vartabedian, Taryn Luna and Matt Ormseth and assistant managing editor Shelby Grad contributed to this report.


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