California lawmakers withhold $4.2B from high-speed rail project

Dive Brief:

  • California legislators ended their 2021 session last week without releasing $4.2 billion in funds for the state’s high-speed rail project from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a move that could end up delaying the $100 billion project further if hard-to-find workers leave for other jobs during the funding gap.
  • Gov. Gavin Newsom requested the funds in May, which were approved by voters via Proposition 1A in 2008, to finish construction in the Central Valley, kick off new work between Merced and Bakersfield, continue planning for the 520-mile line and position the project to compete for more federal infrastructure funds, according to his budget plan.
  • But state legislators, led by Assembly Transportation Chair Laura Friedman and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, have argued for allocating the money to other urban transportation projects since the high-speed rail job has ballooned in costs and faced numerous delays. “What do you need $4 billion for this year, when they spend about a half a billion a year, and they have not provided us any real details about what the money would go toward this year?” Friedman said, according to Streetsblog California.

Dive Insight:

Newsom has made the completion of the nation’s first long-distance high-speed rail project a top priority of his administration, and won a victory at the federal level in June, when President Joe Biden’s administration — a staunch supporter of passenger rail — re-allocated nearly $1 billion to the project that had been blocked during former President Donald Trump’s tenure.

But the state lawmakers’ punt on releasing the remaining state funds now means it will be at least January before that money can start flowing to the project again. While the already in-progress work on the Central Valley line is still funded through the first half of next year, after that, it could grind to a halt.

“By that time we would be forced to slow the pace of construction, resulting in layoffs and possible delay of new, long-term contracts necessary to complete the Central Valley segment,” Micah Flores, spokesman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, told the Sacramento Bee.  

Federal funds on the horizon

Even as California lawmakers succeeded in at least temporarily blocking one of Newsom’s signature initiatives on the eve of a statewide recall election aimed at removing him from office on Tuesday — a move he handily beat back in a landslide win — the governor received more good news from Washington.

The House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met Tuesday to discuss its portion of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill winding its way through Congress, including $10 billion specifically earmarked for high-speed rail, according to Politico.

Early in the morning on Sept. 15, the Committee approved along party lines about $57.3 billion in a bill aimed at reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and building out transit, including high-speed rail, Bloomberg reported. These funds are in addition to the transportation money already included in the main reconciliation bill.

Those are exactly the kinds of funds Newsom has had his eye on for the project, which he has battled to push forward over the past year in the face of state lawmakers’ blocking tactics and COVID-19 delays, when more than 300 workers had to quarantine.

“Our approach is consistent with the will of the voters and the Biden Administration’s expectation for transformative, electrified, and clean high-speed rail service in California,” Newsom said. “We believe the time for slow, diesel-emitting rail is over, and we remain committed to a transportation future that moves people quickly and does so without further polluting our environment.”

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