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California gets environmental oversight on rail project

July 25, 2019

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Trump administration has given California permission to oversee federal environmental reviews for a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, even as the administration tries to cancel a nearly $1 billion grant for the project.

The designation announced Thursday will speed up the environmental review process for the troubled project, said Brian Annis, chief financial officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority

It’s the latest development in the rocky relationship between California and the Trump administration over the project, which has been plagued by cost overruns and delays since California voters first approved it in 2008. It’s now expected to cost $79 billion and take until at least 2033 to complete.

California sought environmental approval in early 2018 and has previously faulted the Trump administration for the delay in approval.

“We’ve certainly been anxious to get it,” Annis said.

The state referenced the delay in a May lawsuit it filed seeking to block the Trump administration from cancelling a $929 million grant for the project. That money is part of $3.5 billion the state won under the Obama administration that must be used by 2022 to build an initial segment of track in the Central Valley and complete environmental reviews.

The Trump administration alleged in cancelling the funding that California wasn’t making enough progress toward the deadline.

California’s lawsuit alleged the Federal Railroad Administration stopped environmental clearance work on the project in September, stalling the state’s efforts.

“We’ve lost valuable time waiting with the FRA’s disengagement, so I am very thankful for this action, and I am hopeful this step is the beginning of a more collaborative and cooperative relationship prospectively,” Brian Kelly, the project’s chief executive, said in a statement.

It’s not unprecedented for the federal government to give a state the authority to oversee environmental reviews. California is one of six states that can do that on highway systems. But this is the first time the railroad administration has granted similar status for a rail project.

“FRA is taking this step after working diligently with the State through technical issues and considering public comment,” spokesman Warren Flatau said in an email.

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