D.C. high-speed rail hearing shows political divide

Bee Washington BureauDecember 14, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- It's unlikely many will be swayed by a high-profile House hearing Thursday on California's high-speed rail program.

Pro and con, political minds are already made up. The hearing's title, crafted by Republican leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says it all: "California's High-Speed Rail Plan: Skyrocketing Costs and Project Concerns."

Still, with testimony scheduled from seven California lawmakers, as well as from seven additional witnesses, the hearing will put one state's ambitions on a national stage while underscoring the difficulties ahead.

"The bottom line is, we want answers," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater.

Indeed, the Thursday morning hearing serves multiple purposes.

It's a boon, of sorts, for Denham. A one-time high-speed rail supporter, Denham has now turned against the current California plan and has been urging his GOP colleagues to closely monitor the state's project. Denham can now cite for voters the oversight hearing as an example of his work on the House transportation panel.

The hearing, as well, provides local supporters and opponents with a chance to directly feed lawmakers evidence for later debate use. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, for one, will present the case for high-speed rail. Madera County farmer Kole Upton will argue against.

The long-term California plan calls for ultimately connecting San Diego and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento, with trains that can travel up to 220 miles per hour. The overall cost is estimated to run nearly $100 billion, more than double original expectations.

"Right now, this project feels like a bait-and-switch," Denham said.

California voters, so far, have approved a $9.9 billion bond measure, while the Obama administration has kicked in $3.9 billion. Congressional Republicans have stymied further funding wherever possible.

The hearing is stacked, though not overwhelmingly so.

Republicans, largely united in opposition to the Obama administration's high-speed rail plans, invited four high-speed rail skeptics, including Upton and Kings County Community Development Agency Director Greg Gatzka. Three witnesses will speak in support: Swearengin, California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof Van Ark and Federal Rail Administration Administrator Joseph Szabo.

"Call it for what it is," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a high-speed rail supporter, said of the hearing. "It's about politics. It's a dog-and-pony show the Republicans have put together."

Republicans, Costa said, will use the hearing to position themselves as fighting Obama priority while they try to divert more transit money to their regions.

But Democrats, too, understand tactical maneuvering. By inviting Swearengin, a Republican, committee Democrats can demonstrate GOP support exists for the California project notwithstanding the House Republican resistance.

The ideological tilt suggested in the hearing's title is certainly commonplace for congressional hearings, which are rarely subtle regardless of which party is in power.

In recent weeks, for instance, one House committee entitled a hearing "The Endangered Species Act: How Litigation is Costing Jobs and Impeding True Recovery Efforts" while another committee called a hearing "Adrift in New Regulatory Burdens and Uncertainty: A Review of Proposed and Potential Regulations on Family Farmers."

In an effort to offset the hearing, high-speed rail supporters have arranged for transportation committee members to receive letters of support from Visalia's mayor, Fresno Council of Governments and others.

The reporter can be reachedat mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (212) 383-0006.

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