High-Speed Rail

The supports for a 1,600-foot viaduct to carry high-speed rail trains across the Fresno River are seen under construction near Madera in February. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Ralph Vartabedian
May 18, 2016

The Obama administration threw the California bullet train project another lifeline Wednesday, extending the schedule by four years for construction of 118 miles of rail through the Central Valley, according to congressional officials.

The extension came through modification of a $2.5-billion grant that originally required completion of a segment of rail structures from Madera to Shafter by 2017.

The changes also allow the Department of Transportation to extend a cash advance to the state, which potentially means the California High-Speed Rail Authority can continue spending long after the original deadline that was set in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The change brought an immediate attack by Republican critics, who said the Transportation Department and its Federal Railroad Administration awarded the project an unprecedented concession.

“This is the oversight agency that is suppose to monitor taxpayer money,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, (R-Turlock) chairman of the House rail subcommittee and a longstanding critic of the project. “For them to give a blank check and authorize a cash advance is a clear conflict of interest.”

The rail authority said the grant modification was largely a technical fix necessary to accommodate recent changes to its business plan.

“The misconception that this amendment somehow delays California’s high-speed rail project is completely false,” said spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley, adding that such changes are common to complex and long-term projects.

Authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales said the new agreement “is consistent with our efforts to connect Silicon Valley and the Central Valley.”

The Obama administration has made five previous modifications of the grant in recent years, including one that allowed the state to provide required matching funds after first using the federal money. Normally, grants require states to match federal funds on a dollar-for-dollar basis as they are spent.

The grant modification comes shortly after the Obama administration sent a letter to the rail authority calling for an immediate acceleration of the pace of its long-delayed construction activity in the Central Valley. The letter demanded that the state take “aggressive steps” to improve its lagging performance or risk losing a portion of the federal funding.

Victor Mendez, deputy secretary of Transportation, told the rail authority it must speed up the rate of property purchases, finalize construction schedules that remain fluid and complete its project design faster — fairly obvious issues that have long defied solutions.

A spokesman for Mendez said the letter was a routine step to remind the rail authority of requirements under the federal funding. The department declined to answer detailed questions about the grant modification.

A Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said the agreement will not amend the 2017 deadline for spending the grant, but acknowledged that it would allow the state to make its required match several years later. Denham believes the amendment may also attempt to allow spending the federal dollars after the deadline.

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