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Why the feds are right to question California's bullet train

Why the feds are right to question California's bullet train
In this Feb. 26, 2016, file photo, the supports for a 1,600-foot-viaduct to carry high-speed rail trains across the Fresno River are seen under construction near Madera in the Central Valley. (AP)

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to cancel a $929 million federal appropriation for California’s hugely troubled bullet-train project — and its interest in getting a refund in $2.5 billion in federal funds that the state has already spent — can be seen in two ways.

The first is that it is the latest escalation in the feud between the state government and President Donald Trump. That is how Gov. Gavin Newsom characterized the Trump administration’s actions in a statement issued mere minutes after the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its press release on Tuesday — as naked political retribution by a reckless president who hates the Golden State.

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But the second way to look at the decision is to consider it on its merits. The DOT’s letter arguing that the project has failed to live up to promises the state made to the federal government in seeking federal funding in 2009 is beyond dispute — and the federal agency barely even needs to do any research to make this case. All it has to do is cite analyses from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office and the State Auditor’s Office and the excellent reporting of the Los Angeles Times’ Ralph Vartabedian.

Specifically, the letter alleged the state had failed to meet promises it would make “reasonable progress” toward completion of the project. As Vartabedian has reported, it’s 13 years behind schedule.

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The letter also alleged that California is not using its $3 billion-plus in federal funds in a way that the state said it would. That’s plainly true. In 2008, seeking to win voter approval of a ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the then-$34 billion project, backers promised it would create a statewide bullet train network getting people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in fewer than three hours. In 2009, seeking federal funding from the economic stimulus bill passed by Congress, state officials repeated these promises. But in 2012, after the project’s cost had exploded to $98 billion, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state High-Speed Rail Authority approved a “blended” plan that relied on low-speed commuter trains to complete trips in densely populated urban areas south of San Francisco and north of Los Angeles, lowering the price tag to $64 billion. That is not a state high-speed rail network. This month, Newsom further retreated from the state’s original promises when he said that the state didn’t have nearly enough money to complete even a truncated $77 billion north-south high-speed route and would use its remaining billions to finish a 119-mile link between Merced and Bakersfield.

The letter also alleged the state would not meet the 2022 deadline for completing that link. State Auditor Elaine Howle is all but in agreement. In a scathing November audit about how the rail authority’s awful management had led to billions of dollars in cost overruns, Howle wrote that the authority “could miss the new deadline unless Central Valley construction progresses twice as fast as it has to date.” Completing it certainly seems like a long shot given how little progress the authority has made in acquiring land needed to finish construction.

The upshot? While what the federal government wants to do may be without precedent — and its actions may be driven not by opposition to government waste but a desire to embarrass state leaders — there is reason to welcome this development. It may stop the state from throwing good money after bad for an expensive rail line in a lightly populated, remote area that already has passenger rail service. Better to have a karmic cost for the rail authority’s and former Gov. Jerry Brown’s decade of deceit and mismanagement than a bigger cost to taxpayers.

Twitter: @sdutIdeas

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