CA: bullet train misses massive California budget surplus

Crews are building this viaduct near Hanford on a struggling 65-mile segment of the planned high-speed rail line in California.

Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / TNS

SAN JOSE, Calif .– California Governor Gavin Newsom has spent the past week promoting a long list of new spending proposals made possible by a record budget surplus – but the state’s beleaguered bullet train is missing.

While the May budget review Newsom rolled out on Friday calls for giving the California High Speed ​​Rail Authority $ 4.2 billion to build the first segment of its system in the Central Valley, this proposal does not represent a new public funding for the project.

Instead, the money would come from bonds approved by voters in 2008 to start the high-speed rail system that promised to eventually transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles, using funds already raised to pay for the project. This differs from a proposal several leaders in the state legislature have made to divert money from bonds to other local transit projects, which they believe would provide more immediate benefits.

Yet even with a surplus of more than $ 100 billion to be distributed across the state, Newsom notably chose not to make new commitments in the high-speed train project, which is expected to generate tens of billions of dollars. ‘it is never reached. the bay area or Los Angeles.

The governor has scarcely skimped on infrastructure spending: his budget revision adds $ 6.8 billion for other transportation needs, including $ 1 billion for projects related to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, $ 1 billion for other “priority transit and railroad projects” and $ 2 billion for upgrades to highways, roads and bridges across the state.

It was “a pretty glaring omission,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the University of California, Berkeley Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, but also “a reflection of the political realities within the Legislature and where the public opinion is at. “

The bullet train has become a popular target for Republicans and has seen its voter support wane after years of skyrocketing costs. The recall election that Newsom faces later this year, Elkind said, “gives him all the incentive to do things that are politically popular – and to stay away from things that could ultimately be beneficial to him. State, but who are not politically popular at the moment. “

There was better news for the federal government’s bullet train. Newsom announced during his updated budget proposal rollout speech on Friday that federal transportation officials under the Biden administration had agreed to restore $ 929 million in funding for the bullet train project from their predecessors. of the Trump administration were dismissed in 2019.

“Those dollars are coming back to the state,” said Newsom, a Democrat. “We have a real federal partner for our high-speed rail system – an incredible opportunity to complete work in the Central Valley and then build these extensions in the Bay Area and in Southern California.”

In a statement Friday, deputy administrator of the Federal Railways, Amit Bose, stopped short of confirming a deal to restore funding for the project, but said negotiations had been “productive” and hailed the high-speed train as a “pioneering project”.

Teams are currently building the first 119-mile segment of the project, which runs from Madera just north of Bakersfield. And railway officials say they can add 52 more miles of track and start passenger service by the end of the decade if they’re allowed to use the $ 4.2 billion voters approved by. proposal 1A of 2008.

“Our goal right now is to travel the 119 miles into the Central Valley and get the trains running as soon as possible,” authority spokeswoman Melissa Figueroa wrote in an emailed statement on Friday. Newsom’s budget proposal. “With the allocation of the remaining bond funds, we will be able to do this, keeping the men and women working in the central valley.”

Meanwhile, the authority has planned the “bookends” segments of the system that would extend the line from Central Valley to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, although it does not have the means to build them. . These projects, which require plotting routes through remote mountain ranges and the heart of bustling cities, will require a massive infusion of funds – after years of rising costs, the total price of service from San Francisco to Los Angeles could reach $ 100 billion. .

Although Newsom’s budget did not provide this money, proponents of the project are hoping that the $ 2.3 trillion stimulus proposed by President Joe Biden, which includes $ 80 billion for new rail projects, will be. .

“With the continued partnership of the federal government,” Figueroa wrote, “we will work to seek additional federal dollars that could be allocated to the project to help us complete the full 500 mile system.”

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(c) 2021 The San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, CA)

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