Battle of words over high-speed rail erupts on Capitol Hill

Bee Washington BureauJanuary 15, 2014 

— House lawmakers grilled state and federal officials, and some of their own colleagues, about California's high-speed rail program in a three-hour hearing Wednesday looking at the future of the embattled project.

Six lawmakers from California testified before their own colleagues at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, with Republicans -- led by Turlock's Jeff Denham -- opposing the project and Democrats including Fresno's Jim Costa generally supporting it.

The exchange between the lawmakers and their colleagues stirred a long-simmering debate about whether California needs high-speed rail, whether the project costs too much and whether the funds could be better spent on other needs.

Voters approved bond funding for the project in 2008 based on an initial cost of $32 billion. But the project's cost then soared to $98 billion. It was scaled back to $68 billion after changes were made that raised questions of whether California was getting the system that was promised.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled in November that the authority's financing plan violated Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion bond measure. The judge ordered the agency to rewrite the funding plan before it could spend any state bond funds on construction, but he did not bar the authority from its pre-construction activities including engineering and planning or buying land for the railroad right of way.

But the state faces an April deadline to make a $180 million payment required to keep the federal money coming.

"A court has ruled," said Denham, chairman of the House railroad subcommittee and a vocal critic of high-speed rail in the state. "There is no state match."

The Federal Railroad Administration has continued to make payments on its $3 billion commitment to the project. Denham questioned whether the Obama administration should continue to make those payments until the legal issues are resolved. He introduced legislation Wednesday to suspend the federal spending.

"Unless they come up with a viable plan," Denham said, "I believe it's time to end the project."

He angrily challenged the administration for not answering letters and phone calls requesting data "we feel is necessary to conduct proper oversight." Denham also chastised Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo for not attending Wednesday's hearing. Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Hedlund testified in his place.

"What are you hiding?" Denham asked Hedlund about the unanswered phone calls and letters.

Hedlund and the rail authority's board chairman, Dan Richard, told lawmakers that there was no reason to stop federal payments to the project in spite of the setbacks.

"We are going to be building high-speed rail in California," Richard said. "We believe we have the funds in hand."

In his budget plan last week, Gov. Jerry Brown committed $250 million in state fees paid by carbon polluters to help the project. That still leaves nearly $55 billion the authority has to find somewhere else.

Lawmakers questioned where the authority would get the funding. Richard said no private companies had stepped up because they were waiting for the authority to use its federal stimulus dollars first.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the third-ranking Republican in the House, wasn't buying it.

"I have serious concerns about the authority's finances," he said. "Not one additional cent has been identified for this project."

Even some Democrats expressed skepticism.

"We need to have more information from the authority about the benefits it brings to the public," said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk.

Besides McCarthy, Republicans who spoke against the project were Reps. David Valadao of Hanford and Doug LaMalfa of Butte County. Democrats who testified in support were Reps. Costa, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim.

An initial 130-mile segment of high-speed track in the Central Valley was supposed to be under way, with federal funds covering the $2.6 billion construction cost. The line would eventually link Los Angeles with San Francisco, but Valadao, a freshman, questioned why the project had to begin in the middle of California's prime agricultural region.

"If you're hell-bent on spending the money, start somewhere that needs something," Valadao testified.

Supporters noted that the state's population, now at 38 million, is expected to increase to 50 million by 2030, and that the state's airports and highways couldn't keep up with the needs of residents now.

Some implied that the project's criticism was less about substance and more about politics. Republicans widely oppose Obama's high-speed rail program, and the entire economic stimulus.

"For those who oppose the project, give us your plan," Costa testified.

Denham said the tens of billions of dollars could pay for other critical infrastructure in the state, including water projects, highways and airports, with funds left over for education.

"It's about priorities," Denham said.

Richard, the rail authority leader, noted that major state public works projects, including water and transit, were once regarded with skepticism. He said the high-speed rail project would be no different.

"This is not the first massive infrastructure projects to face tests like these," he said.

Bee staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at ctate@mcclatchydc.com or @tatecurtis on Twitter.

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