Hostile House committee examines California high-speed rail

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

A hostile House Transportation Committee today examined what it calls “skyrocketing costs and growing concerns with California’s high-speed rail project.” The project’s chief executive remained upbeat despite the congressional grilling.

The price tag is the biggest concern for House Republicans from California. The latest estimates show high-speed rail will cost nearly $100 billion, more than double the original estimate.

Members also questioned the decision to start its construction in the Central Valley instead of L.A. or San Francisco. Roelof van Ark, head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, who's built bullet train projects in Europe and Asia, said that’s how it’s done. "A high-speed rail system is that part, that backbone that is going to connect those cities with each other."

Maryland Congressman Andy Harris asked the Federal Railroad Administration head Joseph Szabo why people in his state should pay for California’s project. Szabo said there's value to the entire nation and tried to tell Szabo how delays at LAX or San Francisco Airport would affect air traffic on the East Coast. Harris cut him off, saying, "the people in the first congressional district in Maryland very rarely travel through the San Francisco Airport or the L.A. Airport. They kind of stay near Salisbury and Baltimore, to be honest with you."

Californians on the committee suggested other ways to spend the nearly 4 billion federal dollars already allocated to high-speed rail, such as improving the state’s freight rail system and boosting passenger use of Ontario Airport. Szabo told lawmakers the government had already set aside the money for the rail project.

Outside the hearing, Van Ark said the political climate on Capitol Hill creates problems for long-range projects. "In Europe," he said, "the politicians generally have a longer horizon." But Van Ark insists that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will understand that high-speed rail has a role to play in California’s future.

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