Politics, government and public life for Southern California

UPDATE: California Congressional delegation is split on high speed rail project

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California's Congressional delegation demonstrated its disunity at a transportation hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Democrats lined up to support the state's high speed rail project. Republicans assailed it as a boondoggle. The disagreement astounded members from other states.

The fight is over money. Together, Sacramento and Washington have so far committed $6 billion for high speed rail in California. But actual construction won't even start for another three months.

Central Valley Republican Jeff Denham, chair of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, said he was concerned about wasting taxpayers' money. "The rest of the nation looks at California," he said, seeing the $6 billion spent, "and it's decades — if ever — that this thing ever gets accomplished."

That $6 billion is about 10 percent of the money needed to build the project that promises to speed passengers at 200 miles an hour between Los Angeles and San Francisco by the year 2030.

Denham asked the chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, whether a single dollar of private money has yet been pledged. Richard said when the private sector sees that "there is an ongoing commitment, both from the state of California and the federal government, that will accelerate private sector money into this project."

Richard projects $20 billion in private investment, about a third of the total needed for completion .

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the hearing was the open divisiveness on display within the California delegation. 

Three Republicans, led by House Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, testified before the committee. They questioned the need, the expense, and the future of the project. "If the Authority cannot prove to us in this committee that California High Speed Rail is viable, what makes any of us think they can build it, much less operate and maintain it?," McCarthy said.

Two House Democrats, including Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim, also gave testimony. They insisted the project was crucial, and disputed allegations that Californians had turned sour on the project. Sanchez pointed to Anaheim, which is expected to complete construction this year on a transportation regional hub that would be the southern terminus of the high speed rail line. She said the city "built the cart in front of the horse, if you will, because we truly believe that we need this project in California."

Delegations usually work together to secure federal funding. Texas brags about its ability to cross the aisle to grab federal dollars. The public disagreement surprised observers from other states. One member said, in two decades on the Hill, she'd never seen lawmakers turn down federal dollars. 

On Thursday, Denham introduced legislation to put federal funding for California's high speed rail project on hold until matching funding is secured.

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