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Trump Threatens To Cut Grant Money For High-Speed Trains In California


The battle between the Trump administration and California seems to be escalating with each passing day. Monday, California led 15 other states in suing President Trump after he declared a national emergency to free up money for a border wall. Then yesterday, the Trump administration said it would cancel more than $900 million in grants for construction of a high-speed rail system in California, which brings us to today, when President Trump tweeted about those grants. Quote, "send the federal government back the billions of dollars wasted." KQED's Scott Shafer is covering the controversy. He joins us now from San Francisco.

And, Scott, before we dig into this escalating feud, lay out for us where this whole high-speed train project stands. How much has actually been built?

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, you know, this was sold as a bullet train linking Los Angeles and San Francisco in a little more than 2 1/2 hours. Price tag - $34 billion. That was in 2008. And since then, the project has really struggled. There've been lawsuits. And that slows everything down. The route has been changed. Costs have ballooned to 77 billion. That's more than twice the original cost.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHAFER: And despite all that, 110 miles is being built in the Central Valley between Merced and Bakersfield. There's actually construction sites there, so it is underway.

KELLY: And when is that route in the Central Valley supposed to open?

SHAFER: Well, it was going to be 2022, so three years from now. But then Newsom - Governor Newsom met last week with Central Valley mayors and pushed it back to 2027, so yet another delay.

KELLY: OK. So as we heard, the president - President Trump has decided this is just billions of dollars wasted, and he wants it back. Can the federal government just take back the money that's been promised to this project?

SHAFER: Well, we'll see. There's two parts to this money. The total grant was 3.5 billion. That was approved in 2010, back when Democrats controlled Congress and President Obama was in the White House. And of that total, about 2.5 billion has already been spent. It's being used on that portion I described in the Central Valley. And so yesterday, the Department of Transportation said it was canceling the balance of that - about $900 million that has yet to be spent.

But they also said they're exploring every legal option to get the rest of that money that's already been used back. It's going to end up in the courts. You know, it really is not a common thing for the federal government to try to claw back money like this. And I'm sure the courts will ultimately decide.

KELLY: So what is California's next move? - or, I guess, California Governor Gavin Newsom's next move.

SHAFER: Well, you know, it's a little unclear. They're looking at all their legal options. But here's what Governor Newsom had to say last week in his State of the State address.


GAVIN NEWSOM: I have no interest in sending back $3.5 billion of federal funding that was allocated to this project to President Donald Trump. That would - that, fundamentally, would have to happen. And we just walked away.

SHAFER: And I think, Mary Louise, you know - I don't think the governor really expected all this would happen. I think he was just turning the page on how Governor Jerry Brown had been handling this. But, obviously, it has blown up into something much bigger.

KELLY: So let me ask you about a link - whether there is a link. Is this move to try to claw back money or is this retaliation for the lawsuit that California just filed on Monday? - not to mention...

SHAFER: Well...

KELLY: ...I guess, the other 40 plus times...

SHAFER: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...That California has sued the federal government.

SHAFER: Several dozen - yeah, well, Governor Newsom certainly thinks it is. I mean, Trump tweeted about the project, wanting the federal money back right after Newsom's speech last week. And then that lawsuit was filed on Monday. And then Trump tweeted again yesterday, connecting the lawsuit with high-speed rail. So clearly, in the president's mind at least, these two things are linked. And whether or not it's retribution, I guess, I'll leave that for others to say.

KELLY: All right. That's KQED's Scott Shafer. Thanks so much.

SHAFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer