Denham tries to ban high-speed rail funding

Bee Washington BureauFebruary 3, 2012 

An artist's depiction of a California high-speed train.

WASHINGTON -- A key House panel late Thursday gave the back of its hand to California's embattled high-speed rail program.

In another sign of high-speed rail's political travails, the House committee writing a massive transportation bill included an amendment that prohibits new federal funds from going to California's proposed $98 billion project during the five-year life of the bill.

"I want to make sure that the money that comes to California goes to highway funding," Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican, said in an interview.

The amendment is symbolic, as the underlying bill does not authorize any high-speed rail spending. California planners do not anticipate needing additional federal funds for several years. The signal, though, is consistent with others sent by congressional Republicans, who have largely lined up to oppose a proposal strongly backed by the Obama administration.

"It's always important to clarify your intention," Denham said.

Denham, who has moved his California residence from Atwater to Turlock, offered the amendment during an excruciatingly long and sometimes contentious markup of the bill called the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.

Denham's amendment, adopted by a 31-22 vote, marks the first and only time the word "California" appears in the House transportation bill, which started out at 847 pages. It was fought by Democrats during a hearing that stretched more than 16 hours and ended with the bill's approval at 11:45 p.m. PST Thursday.

"I think it's a big mistake," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said of Denham's total high-speed rail cutoff. "The High- Speed Rail Authority is rapidly adjusting its program, looking for ways of significantly reducing the cost."

The overall $260 billion House bill omits individual spending earmarks and cuts Amtrak funding by 25%. It also seeks to speed construction by shortening environmental reviews.

The bill's long-term fate is uncertain, as it differs in some important ways from a two-year Senate measure being shepherded by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"The American people need a transportation bill," Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke said in a statement. "This [House] bill will prevent them from getting one."

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