Lawmaker threatens to freeze rail funds

October 7, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- A top House Republican on Friday sent a warning signal to California's high-speed rail project by introducing a bill to freeze federal funding.

The bill authored by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, would stop the Obama administration from spending additional high-speed rail funds in California through September 2012. Whatever its long-term prospects, the measure sounds a loud political alarm.

"Responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars is always important, and now more than ever," McCarthy said in a statement Friday. "We cannot afford to throw money we don't have at a project most don't have confidence in."

Nine House members, all California Republicans, joined as co-sponsors of the bill that McCarthy called a "timeout." Some, including McCarthy, have previously backed high-speed rail proposals but now consider California's project imprudent or at least unproven.

"Freezing funding for this project is necessary to assess how taxpayer money will actually be spent," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, said.

The Obama administration has announced $3.6 billion in federal funds for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Some of this has already been spent and so can't be touched by the new bill.

The legislation, though, freezes $715 million of the total that has not yet been formally "obligated" to the state. For the remaining federal funds, the bill also freezes anything that has not yet been spent.

Other states, too, have been successfully competing for federal high-speed rail funds. The three-page bill, though, confines itself to California.

"This legislation attempts to throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "In a time when our economy is struggling, this purely political proposal makes no sense."

In addition to the funding freeze, the legislation directs the non-partisan Government Accountability Office to evaluate the California project. The four-month study would examine ridership projections, future funding needs, potential ticket prices and other criteria, and would also compare California's project to those in other states.

"We understand and share this interest that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly, with transparency and accountability," California High-Speed Rail Authority spokesperson Rachel Wall said Friday.

Wall added that a "detailed analysis of these issues and much more" will become public when the rail authority releases a business plan Nov. 1.

"We are confident the report will be responsive to the questions raised," Wall said.

The California project's first two sections would connect Bakersfield to Fresno and Fresno to Merced. Officials are now completing required environmental studies.

The revised Bakersfield-to-Fresno study is supposed to be done next spring, and California High-Speed Rail Authority officials insist initial construction will start in Fresno during 2012.

Planners anticipate the trains will travel at upwards of 220 miles per hour. The original cost estimates for a completed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system were pegged at $43 billion.

Skeptics, though, question whether the ambitious project will become a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle. Growers have raised alarms about losing valuable farmland. More broadly, many congressional Republicans have cast high-speed rail as irrevocably linked to the Obama administration.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, used to co-chair a congressional high-speed rail caucus during the Bush administration.

Now, the GOP-controlled House, in particular, has repeatedly targeted high-speed rail spending. In July, as part of an energy and water funding bill, the House approve shifting $1.5 billion from high-speed rail to Midwestern drought relief. In April, as part of a separate budget deal, lawmakers also cut the rail spending.

The reporter can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10.

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