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Will California's high-speed rail cash survive Congress?

An artist's rendering of California's high speed rail.
An artist's rendering of California's high speed rail.
California High Speed Rail Authority

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California’s plans for high-speed rail are under the microscope of Congress tomorrow. The House Transportation Committee will grill the head of the state’s project. The knives are out to carve up California’s high-speed cash.

Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee couldn’t wait for this week’s hearing to take pot shots at California’s high-speed rail project.

At a hearing last week, Republican committee chairman John Mica of Florida said he was an initial booster of the super-fast trains. "But our one hope, California, appears to be in disarray."

Mica ticked off California’s high-speed rail problems: cost projections that have more than doubled, a 13-year delay getting out of the station and an initial route from Fresno to Bakersfield that pleases nobody. Mica said the problems give critics of high-speed rail "more ammunition to undermine what should be positive alternate means of transportation."

Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Fresno voted for the project in the California State Senate. But now that he sits on the House Transportation Committee, he’s changed his mind.

As he posed for pictures next to the Capitol Christmas tree just arrived from his district, Denham said California’s nearly $100 billion high-speed rail project is out of control. "I don’t think you can continue to throw money at a project that doesn’t pencil out. And this one certainly doesn’t pencil out by anybody’s pencil." Denham wants to stop federal funding immediately, force planners to go back to the drawing board to see how they can reduce funds and find private investors.

It’s unclear whether the federal government can take back nearly $4 billion handed to California for high-speed rail. But Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania was willing to try. He told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood there was only one high-speed rail project in the country worth spending the money on: the route from Boston to New York to Washington, D.C.

"Why are you opposed to saying with all this money, taking the money from maybe even California and focusing on the northeast corridor?" Shuster said. "When we own the tracks, when the numbers, the number of people who live in the northeast corridor, 18 to 19 percent of the population on 2 to 3 percent of our land mass, it’s absolutely ripe for high-speed rail. So why wouldn’t we focus on that like a laser?"

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reminded Shuster that his department had just sent the northeast corridor a billion dollars. He told him, "We are not just going to just invest every dollar in one part of the country. That’s not fair."

Democrat Barbara Boxer heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She says if you want to talk population as a reason to build high-speed rail, you've got to talk about California. "We have more people — 38 million people — and if that’s the criteria, we would win."

Boxer adds that California brings something else to the table: cash. "Our people voted to tax themselves for high-speed rail." But many California voters are having buyer’s remorse. A recent Field Poll shows two out of three registered voters want another crack at the 2008 high-speed rail bond measure.

On Monday, Congressman Denham took to the airwaves in Fresno. His guest on KMJ was Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Coupal says another ballot initiative could kill high-speed rail in California — but lawmakers in Sacramento can do it, too.

"This is simply not the project that was sold to the voters three years ago," he told listeners. "It’s not. It’s an entirely different project in terms of its scope and its cost, therefore the Legislature is now empowered under the state constitution to kill this project with a simple majority vote of each house."

Coupal says it used to be unthinkable that Democrats in the Legislature would vote against high-speed rail. But he says fiscal realities in Sacramento could change enough minds to stop the Golden State bullet train in its tracks.