Congress kills rail funds, but Fresno stretch is a go

Bee staff and news servicesNovember 17, 2011 

Congress voted Thursday to kill funds for President Barack Obama's signature high-speed rail program – a rebuke of sorts for California's plans, but not a fatal blow.

Republican lawmakers are claiming credit for killing the national program. But billions of dollars still in the pipeline will ensure work will continue on some projects, including the scheduled start of construction next year in the Fresno area. The California project has been awarded $3.9 billion in federal aid so far. And it's still possible money from another transportation grant program can be steered to high-speed trains.

Obama had requested $8 billion in fiscal 2012 for the program and $53 billion over six years.

But House-Senate bargainers this week agreed to a broad spending bill that eliminates any funding in the 2012 budget for high-speed trains. The House approved that legislation Thursday 298-121 and the Senate followed suit 70-30, sending the measure to the White House.

Still, the California High-Speed Rail Authority maintained that its plans are on track for the first $2 billion rail leg planned to run about 21 to 29 miles from Madera to just south of Fresno.

"Our plan assumes no federal funding before 2014," authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said. "This doesn't affect the Central Valley start."

Wall said the authority had long ago read the economic tea leaves and anticipated a bleak budget outlook.

"We'll continue to work on this with Congress," Wall said.

Republicans have made it clear since taking control of the House last year that they intended to eliminate the program, which they say is too costly.

The bill marks "an end to the president's misguided high-speed rail program, but it is not the end of American high-speed rail," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's railroad subcommittee.

Shuster and the Transportation Committee's chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., say the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. is in the Northeast rail corridor, which connects Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, rather than the national network of trains envisioned by Obama.

But Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an Obama ally and high-speed rail supporter, said he is confident some money will be found to keep Obama's train program going through the Transportation Department's TIGER program, which makes grants to projects that achieve critical national objectives.

The 2012 spending bill includes $500 million for the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program. High-speed trains would have to compete with highway, transit, port and freight rail projects for money.

Since Obama took office in 2009, his administration has steered $10.1 billion to high-speed rail projects around the country. Some of the money is only now being used because of the time it takes to start up a major grant program and because the program suffered setbacks when several GOP governors canceled projects in their states that had been awarded funds.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he expects more than $1 billion in high-speed rail construction-related activity across the country next year.

The biggest project is in California, where the state is proposing European-style bullet trains traveling up to 220 mph between San Francisco and Anaheim. Planners hope to start construction of the first phase, from Fresno to Bakersfield, next year and complete it by 2017 at a cost of $6 billion – $3.3 billion in federal funding and $2.7 billion in state bonds.

The rail authority took its latest step forward this week when it asked for companies capable of designing and building the first leg to prequalify to bid on the contract. Applications are due in 35 days, and the most-qualified applicants will be put on a "short list" eligible to bid on the segment.

A new estimate and schedule released this month pegged the cost of the statewide system at $98.5 billion and pushed completion to 2034. One reason for the cost increase is that it takes into account inflation over that period.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state's top Democrats continue to support the plan. But the plan has detractors including Kings County and two local landowners, who joined to filed suit this week seeking to stop it on the grounds that it isn't eligible for state bond money.

Now, the federal uncertainties have strengthened the position of the project's opponents.

"What's frustrating about Congress passing no new funding this year is that it adds uncertainty to federal funding," said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, an urban planning and infrastructure advocacy group. "That isn't helpful to projects like California that rely on a certain amount of federal funding."

The first phase of the California project is already funded.

"Some time in the next few years they will need Congress to vote for more money for rail, but it doesn't kill the project that Congress zeroed out funding this year," Todorovich said.

Mort Downey, the No. 2 Transportation Department official under President Bill Clinton and a former Obama campaign adviser, said Obama's high-speed rail plans depend on the California project.

"If California continues to go forward, we're still on life support," Downey said.

Anthony Perl, chairman of the Transportation Research Board's rail group, said that even if Obama's program collapses, it's "still highly likely" a national high-speed rail network will be built in coming decades, partly because the price of oil is expected to continue to increase.

"There is nothing that uses less oil moving people than trains," Perl said. "Cheap oil equals more cars and planes; expensive oil equals trains."

California transportation officials estimate that if high-speed train service doesn't go forward, the state will need to spend $171 billion to construct more than 2,300 miles of freeways, four more airport runways and 115 additional airline gates to accommodate the travel demands of the state's population of 54 million people by 2050.

The Associated Press, KQED and the San Francisco Chronicle contributed to this report. KQED and the Chronicle are members of a partnership among California news organizations following the state’s high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, California Watch, The Sacramento Bee, The Modesto Bee, the Merced Sun-Star, the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian, the Orange County Register, the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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