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California Bullet Train Receives No Funds from Budget Surplus

Despite having billions more than anticipated, Gov. Gavin Newsom will not allocate any of the surplus budget funds for the bullet train. With many Republicans opposing the rail project, the decision may have been political.

(TNS) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom spent the past week promoting a long list of new spending proposals made possible by a record-smashing budget surplus — but the state's embattled bullet train is missing out.

While the May budget revision 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, that proposal does not represent new state funding for the project.

Instead, the money would come out of the bond voters approved in 2008 to start the high-speed rail system that promised to eventually take riders from San Francisco to Los Angeles, tapping funds that were already raised to pay for the project. That differs from a proposal several leaders of the state Legislature have made to divert the bond money to other local public transit projects, which they argue would provide more immediate benefits.

Still, even with a surplus of more than $100 billion to spread around the state, Newsom notably chose not make any new commitments to the high-speed rail project, which will need to come up with tens of billions of dollars if it's ever going reach the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

The governor hardly skimped on infrastructure spending: His budget revision adds $6.8 billion for other transportation needs, including $1 billion for projects related to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, $1 billion for other "priority transit and rail projects" and $2 billion for improvements to highways, roads and bridges across the state.

It was "a pretty glaring omission," said Ethan Elkind, the director of the Climate Program at the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, but also "a reflection of the political realities in the Legislature and where public opinion is at."

High-speed rail has become a popular target for Republicans and seen its support among voters falter after years of ballooning costs. The recall election Newsom is facing later this year, Elkind said, "gives him all the incentive to do things that are politically popular — and stay away from things that may be ultimately beneficial for the state, but are not politically popular at the moment."

There was better news for the bullet train from the federal government. Newsom announced at his speech rolling out the updated budget proposal Friday that federal transportation officials under the Biden Administration have agreed to restore $929 million in funding for the high speed rail project that their predecessors in the Trump Administration revoked in 2019.

"Those dollars are coming back into the state," said Newsom, a Democrat. "We have a real federal partner for our high-speed rail system — an incredible opportunity to finish the work in the Central Valley, and then build out those extensions into the Bay Area and down into Southern California."

In a statement Friday, Federal Railroad Administration Deputy Administrator Amit Bose stopped short of confirming an agreement to restore the project's funding, but said negotiations have been "productive" and praised high-speed rail as a "pioneering project."

Crews are now building the first 119-mile segment of the project, which runs from Madera to just north of Bakersfield. And rail authority officials say they can add another 52 miles of track and launch passenger service by the end of the decade if they are allowed to use the $4.2 billion voters approved with 2008's Proposition 1A.

"Our objective right now is to complete the 119 miles in the Central Valley, and get trains running as soon as possible," authority spokeswoman Melissa Figueroa wrote in an emailed statement about Newsom's budget proposal Friday. "With the allocation of the remaining bond funds we'll be able to do that, keeping men and women working in the Central Valley."

Meanwhile the authority has been planning for the "bookend" segments of the system that would extend the Central Valley line to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, even though it doesn't have the money to build them. Those projects, which require carving routes through remote mountain ranges and the cores of bustling cities, will require a massive infusion of funding — after years of cost increases, the total price tag for San Francisco to Los Angeles service could be as high as $100 billion.

While Newsom's budget didn't provide that money, backers of the project hope the $2.3 trillion stimulus President Joe Biden has proposed, which includes $80 billion for new rail projects, will.

"With continued partnership from the federal government," Figueroa wrote, "we will work to apply for additional federal dollars that may be allocated to the project to help us complete the full 500-mile system."

(c)2021 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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