California Republicans ask Trump administration to block bullet train funding

California’s House Republicans have asked the Trump administration to block a pending federal grant that will ultimately support the state’s high speed rail project until an audit of the project’s finances is completed.

The letter, signed by all 14 members of the state’s GOP delegation, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, was sent to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. It cites cost increases, reductions in the project’s scope and its failure to attract private financing.

Dated Jan. 24, the letter asks Chao to stop approval of a $650-million grant that the Transportation Department could make to the Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter rail agency as early as next week as part of an effort to install an electrical system. The bullet train would eventually use the same line from San Jose to San Francisco.

This latest effort to at least temporarily derail the multibillion-dollar project comes at a particularly tense political moment.

President Trump on Sunday told a Fox News host that “California in many ways is out of control” and has vowed to cut funds to the state over immigration issues. But he has also said he will massively increase the nation’s infrastructure spending.

Trump’s and Chao’s view on the bullet train, the nation’s largest infrastructure project, is largely unknown. The unified position against further federal funding by the state’s own Republican representatives will be an early test of the new administration’s direction.

California Democrats quickly countered the Republicans’ letter with one of their own, asking that the grant be approved, and charging that the Republican’s letter misstated the fact that the grant was being sought by the rail authority, rather than the Caltrain joint powers board.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) issued a statement Monday, saying the Republicans’ letter was rife with “inaccuracies and innuendo” and arguing that blocking the train would cost California thousands of jobs and make commuting between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, “dirtier, slower and more crowded.” 

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), an early and staunch supporter, called the idea that the project is a waste of tax money “false,” adding:  “The positive impacts of High Speed Rail construction can be seen in my district and throughout the Central Valley.”

The rail authority said in a statement that rail modernization, including the bullet train, will improve mobility in the state. “The electrification of the Caltrain Corridor is an important component of that and of the advancement of high-speed rail in California.”

If the administration cuts off related money for the bullet train and attempts to enforce stricter controls on existing multibillion-dollar grants, it could cause significant stress on a project that is already facing increasing costs and schedule delays.

Ultimately, California may have no other choice than to increase its commitment of state tax money to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature project, even as the state faces a projected budget deficit.

The letter notes that the original cost of the bullet train was estimated about $33 billion for a system that would run from San Diego to Sacramento. Since then the cost has risen to $64 billion, while the scope of the project has been sharply curtailed.

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