SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is sparring with President Donald Trump over $3.5 billion in federal money the state was awarded to build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
California received the money during the Obama administration, and it came with strings attached. The state has already spent $2.9 billion and is working to meet certain deadlines to ensure it doesn’t have to pay it back. They include hitting construction milestones on the Central Valley link and finishing environmental reviews on the full line by 2022.
One of those construction milestones is relocating parts of state Highway 99. State transportation officials are holding a ribbon-cutting for that project Friday, a well-timed demonstration that the project is moving ahead.
Whether California will ever build a bullet train line between San Francisco and Los Angeles was thrown into question Tuesday when in his first State of the State address Newsom said “there simply isn’t a path” for such a route under a current plan that “would cost too much and take too long.” However, he said California will complete the 171-mile high-speed line between Bakersfield and Merced and look for more federal money and private investment.
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Later, Newsom’s office said he is committed to completing the longer line.
Trump seized on the issue, tweeting Wednesday that “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project” and must repay the federal government $3.5 billion.
“We want that money back now,” Trump said.
Newsom, a Democrat, made clear he plans to finish the environmental work required to keep the federal money. “This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back,” he tweeted back at Trump.
It’s unclear if the federal government could try to get the money returned before the 2022 deadlines. The Federal Railroad Administration, which administers the grants, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Voters in 2008 approved bonds for a high-speed train that would connect San Francisco and LA. Since then, the costs have more than doubled to $77 billion, and the expected completion date has been pushed back by 13 years to 2033.
Lawmakers who heard Newsom’s speech came away with different interpretations of his plans, as did rail advocates.
“High Speed Rail is coming, it’s being built, it’s part of our landscape now, it’s not going anywhere,” said Democratic Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, the author of the state’s high-speed rail legislation. Republican Sen. Jim Patterson of Fresno, who opposes the project, said the governor essentially admitted the full line can’t be built.
The Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group in Washington, said Wednesday it appreciated Newsom’s “clarifying” comments that he is “fully committed to building a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.”
But RL Miller, an executive committee member of the California Democratic Party and a high-speed rail proponent, tweeted that Newsom’s announcement is “a plan to starve the choo choo to death. No one will ride the short segment that will be built.”
Newsom blamed confusion partially on The Associated Press, which ran a one-line news alert Tuesday saying Newsom was abandoning the plan for a line from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The full story included his commitment to the Central Valley line and later added his office’s statement about ultimately building the longer line.
“They just heard the first line and didn’t listen to anything else in the speech,” Newsom told The Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
Lauren Easton, director of media relations for The Associated Press, said the AP stands by its story.
“The Associated Press reported what the governor said during his State of the State address. When AP later received additional comment from the governor’s office, we updated the story,” she said.