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The Trump Administration Has Cut Off All Contact With California's High Speed Rail Project

California High Speed Rail Authority

The Trump administration has cut off all communication and cooperation with the California High-Speed Rail Authority — including freezing all environmental review, engineering and safety work dating back to last year — which the state says is putting the already embattled project at risk of further delays and cost increases.

“This disengagement by the [Federal Railroad Administration] represents an unprecedented federal government action to cripple the advancement of a project it has helped fund,” the Authority wrote in its project update report released Wednesday.

The heightened language marks a change in strategy by the project’s leaders, who previously kept their criticism of the Trump administration muted in hopes it would change course.

The new details in the High-Speed Rail Authority’s report also show the Trump administration had been working behind the scenes to derail the project long before the president criticized itfollowing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s State of the State address in February — and before the Federal Railroad Administration announced it would seek to formally end its work on the project and block nearly $1 billion in federal funding.

Until last summer, the FRA had been working jointly with the High-Speed Rail Authority on the environmental reviews. It even functioned as the lead agency, which was allowing the project’s review process to be streamlined.

But “since July 2018, the FRA has not acted as required to complete the combined state and federal reviews on environmental deliverables,” the Authority wrote in Wednesday’s report.

And one week after Newsom confused supporters and opponents alike about whether he was abandoning plans to connect the Bay Area and Southern California with a high-speed rail line (short answer: He isn’t), the FRA sent a letter to the state saying it “intends to terminate” the cooperative agreement for the project.

Since then, the High-Speed Rail Authority says that neither it nor its parent California Transportation Agency has had any communication from the FRA.

“In February 2019, the FRA’s limited participation with the Authority transitioned to complete

disengagement as communicated through a letter from the FRA Administrator,” the state report read.

“We need to restore a functional oversight relationship with the Federal Railroad Administration,” High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly wrote in a statement to CapRadio Thursday. “Over the course of the last year or so, the FRA has increasingly dis-engaged from the project, delaying environmental approvals and threatening our federal funding.”

The implications are significant, said UC Davis environmental law professor Richard Frank, who served on the California High-Speed Rail Authority board from 2014-16 as an appointee of former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Frank said the FRA’s refusal to continue the environmental review work “will undoubtedly leave the project open to third-party [legal] challenges for an incomplete environmental review process.” That, in turn, “opens up potential future delays.”

The state responded to the FRA in early March with a letter asking the Trump administration to reconsider. The FRA said Thursday it is still reviewing the state’s response but otherwise declined comment.

Kelly said the state and federal governments have had a “cooperative and collaborative” relationship for years and hopes the FRA will “respond favorably” to its March letter “very soon.”

The FRA’s participation freeze likely will not affect the project’s 119 mile Central Valley segment. It is currently under construction from the town of Madera, north of Fresno, to the northern outskirts of Bakersfield.

“For the first stretch, where the environmental reviews are complete, that’s a done deal,” Frank said. “And I think there’s no uncertainty there.”

But the lack of federal cooperation on the environmental reviews could delay Newsom’s newly proposed 50 mile extension of the Central Valley track — from Madera to Merced in the north, and from the outskirts of Bakersfield into the city’s downtown in the south.

That’s because California would likely not be able to use any more federal funding, including $929 million in previously awarded — but as-yet-unspent — federal funding that FRA said in its February letter it “intends to promptly de-obligate.”

Still, the project update report released by the High-Speed Rail Authority on Wednesday formalized that 171 mile Merced to downtown Bakersfield proposal and says it’s moving forward with environmental reviews at the state level.

State officials believe they would be able to compensate for the loss of federal funding if revenues from California’s cap-and-trade auctions perform strongly. But if they need federal money to complete the 171 mile stretch, Frank said, “the federal government’s withdrawal of action on its federal environmental review is certainly problematic for that part of the project.”

Frank said California is free to move forward with its own environmental review process under state law — without any federal participation — but that would limit “the project from obtaining any more federal support or funding.”

He said high-speed rail opponents could argue that the state cannot legally complete the extensions.

“That may not be true in an absolute sense,” Frank said, “but it certainly leaves that argument available for project opponents to assert.”

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio