The $79 billion High-Speed Rail that promises to connect Northern and Southern California could be stalled in its tracks by a new obstacle: the Trump administration.
The Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has refused to meet with the California High-Speed Rail Authority following a series of tweets from President Donald Trump in which he threatened to pull federal funding for the project, according to a High-Speed Rail 2019 project update report May 1.
“On Feb. 19, 2019, the FRA administrator notified the Authority of the FRA’s intent to rescind the $929 million in federal FY10 grant funds,” said the update. “The FRA also indicated that it was evaluating taking back the $2.5 billion in ARRA funds that were awarded to the Authority and which has been fully expended in compliance with federal requirements and deadlines.”
The FRA did not comment on the pulled funding, but a source in the administration told the Dispatch that the FRA is still reviewing the High-Speed Rail Authority’s response to the notice of pulled funding.
High-speed rail in California has been the subject of controversy for more than a decade, but as the project progresses, the High-Speed Rail Authority has continued to modify plans and attempt to appease critics. The train would run through Santa Clara County, which already has local officials talking about massive downtown revitalization from a new High-Speed Rail station in Gilroy which would promise a 25-minute commute to Silicon Valley.
Morgan Hill has had a tumultuous relationship with the rail authority, having lobbied for years—with no discernible result yet—to keep the train route out of the city’s downtown and avoid demolition of long-established businesses and neighborhoods.
The authority released the 2019 project report May 1. The update addresses funding shortages, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Feb.12 State of the State address and the Trump administration’s hostility toward the rail project.
Each even year, the authority releases a business plan. The last plan was released in 2018. In between business plans, the authority delivers a “project update report” to the state. The report is not voted on, but goes through state senate committees where High-Speed Rail Authority answers questions.
Newsom’s address called for a change in the rail plan, when he told Californians the project would shift focus to completing the portion of the project that would connect the Central Valley, Merced to Bakersfield. The announcement did not initially shift plans or the timeline of the project, but Northern California Regional Director Boris Lipkin said it may affect the project as planning continues.
Since February, there has been radio silence regarding funding and environmental clearances by the FRA.
Following the State of the State speech, Newsom engaged with Trump on Twitter, following Trump’s tweets that threatened to pull federal funding that had been allocated to the rail project. Lipkin said these weren’t empty threats and that the federal government has not engaged with the authority in the months since the address. The silence from the federal government was addressed in the update report and identified as a risk to the project’s completion.
Lipkin told this paper that the federal representatives have not showed up to scheduled meetings with the Authority and are not reviewing federally required environmental projects that would move the rail along. ”At some point, they will become big issues,” said Lipkin.
“This disengagement by the FRA represents an unprecedented federal government action to cripple the advancement of a project it has helped fund. On March 4, 2019, Authority CEO Brian Kelly sent two letters to the FRA seeking re-engagement and the restoration of a functional partnership on this project,” the update said.
“Those letters have been unanswered by the FRA after nearly two months,” according to the report. “The 2018 State Audit recommended that the Authority develop a contingency plan if at any time the ARRA grant requirements could not be achieved. It will not be possible for the Authority to develop or finalize a contingency plan without proactive engagement by the FRA.”
Routes and rights-of-way
While the Central Valley line construction gets increased attention, the authority is continuing work on the preparation for the other lines, including the “valley to valley” line from San Jose through Bakersfield.
The authority has long planned for a single stop in the South County in Gilroy; however, the rail line will run through Morgan Hill and Pacheco Pass. These plans have not changed, but the exact recommended route has not yet been selected.
The Northern California recommended routes are set for release in July, according to Lipkin. Gilroy has remained the South County hub in the recent iterations of the rail plan.
“Positioned in a key location to become a central transportation hub, the City of Gilroy lies approximately 32 miles south of the City of San Jose. At the southern tip of Santa Clara County, Gilroy is not only the first Bay Area stop on the Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line; it is also a gateway north to Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area and provides access to future rail service south into the Central Coast,” read the update.
“High-speed rail development in Gilroy is expected to spur increases in transit, additional rail service, and local and regional development. With continued growth in the Silicon Valley, including the new Google facility in downtown San Jose, Gilroy is ideally situated to take advantage of the potential for economic growth.”
While the plans in Northern California have not fallen behind the projected timeline, complications with federal funding, getting environmental documents approved by the federal government, and additional focus on the Central Valley line threaten the timing of the work in the Bay Area.
“This plan is really focused on living within our means,” said Lipkin.
Merced to Bakersfield is still projected to be finished in 2028, and Lipkin said the authority is focusing more effort into connecting existing transit options to the two hubs, while the rest of the High-Speed Rail is in construction.
The stop in Gilroy is positioned by the authority as a catalyst for more public transportation options in the area. The update identifies “electrified blended service to Gilroy (High-Speed Rail/Caltrain); Salinas Rail (TAMC), Salinas Rail Kick Start Project; Monterey Branch light rail line, Monterey to Castroville; and Santa Cruz passenger rail to Pajaro,” as public transportation benefits that would come with High-Speed Rail in the South County.
Funding and timelines
The portion of the project that would run through Pacheco Pass is a major funding challenge for the project, which has never had all of the money necessary for completion.
“The availability of sufficient funding presents the biggest challenge to the authority and the greatest risk to delivering both the Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line (Valley to Valley) and Phase 1,” read the update. “This challenge extends further than the present threat from the FRA, although the FRA’s current position compounds the problem.”
The project update provides new numbers for the cost of the Central Valley and Silicon Valley lines. The base price for the line that would run from San Jose to Bakersfield is estimated at $31.3 billion with a high projection of $36.8 billion.
Phase one of the High-Speed Rail project, which includes the Central Valley line completion and Silicon Valley line attachment, is now projected to have a base cost of $79.1 billion and a high cost of $98.1 billion.