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Fans and foes debate California's high speed rail on Capitol Hill

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Congressional committee Thursday that California's proposed high speed rail line is attracting private investors.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Congressional committee Thursday that California's proposed high speed rail line is attracting private investors.

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California’s high speed rail project was under the microscope at a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday. Both the federal and state governments have committed start-up money for the project, but the prospect of additional funds from Washington remains uncertain.

Plans call for the first segment of California’s high speed rail to end in Bakersfield, the district of Republican House Whip Kevin McCarthy. He told the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that Congress wants to invest in infrastructure, but he has doubts about this venture.

"What you want, you also need a plan for," McCarthy said "A plan that works, a plan that is tested, a plan that is audited, and a plan that has a review. And I have real doubt of the viability, the cost, and if and when this will ever be built."

McCarthy and other California House members have asked the Government Accountability Office to review the state's high speed rail project. That review is expected to be completed by February.

Referring to projected ridership, McCarthy told the panel that assumptions can’t be made, as in the classic baseball film, “Field of Dreams."

The Congressman said he knows Hollywood is in California, "but this is not a Kevin Costner movie. If we build it," McCarthy said, "I don’t know if they will come. And that is not how we play with taxpayers’ money."

Democrat Janice Hahn of El Segundo told the committee the biggest mistake politicians have made over the years is not building major transportation projects. She told a story about the time her father, the late L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, took her and brother Jim Hahn to the 1960 World’s Fair in Seattle, which introduced a monorail that still runs today.

"The investors of that project at the time offered to build that monorail system as a pilot program in Los Angeles, traversing the Harbor Freeway," Hahn recalled. "Dad thought it was a good idea."

But other local officials didn’t think it was a wise investment in a city known for its freeway system. Hahn said "nobody at that time thought we could ever get people out of their beloved cars. So that monorail now circles Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom constantly in Anaheim."

California has received the largest portion of federal money for high speed rail — almost $4 billion — to help build the first segment of its project. This summer, the state legislature approved matching bonds.

But with major cuts to federal programs looming, committee members — Democrats and Republicans alike — asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood if he has a back-up plan to help pay for a line that would ultimately connect Southern California to the Bay Area. The total projected cost is $68 billion.

LaHood told lawmakers he knows this project "cannot or will not be built with total federal dollars. We don’t have enough money here to do that. We need private investment."

Democrat Laura Richardson of Carson pressed the Secretary for specifics, asking how soon Congress could get an update on "who these private companies are that are able to invest, how much are they willing to invest, and how soon is this gonna come together?"

LaHood said he'd be happy to provide the names of the companies. But he added a proviso: "How much they’re going to invest, obviously hasn’t been determined."

Republican Jeff Denham of Fresno pushed even harder for details on private funding. LaHood accused Denham of jinxing the process by adding language to the House transportation bill that prohibits the federal government from funding high speed rail in California."

LaHood told Denham it's not going to get fully funded "as long as there’s language in bills that says we can’t have any money." Denham’s amendment was largely symbolic, since there wasn’t any high speed rail money in the House bill.

California’s Republican delegation isn’t the only obstacle to future funding for high speed rail: Congressional members from the Northeast — from both parties — want high speed dollars for a Boston-to-Washington route.

But Democratic D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton sounded willing to compromise, saying she’d like to see a pilot project running somewhere soon — even if it’s in California.  She reminded fellow committee members that the federal government has a history of investing in transportation during financially trying times: it built railroads during the Civil War.