Rep. Devin Nunes will introduce legislation today that would give California the option of taking $2.8 billion in federal funds slated for high-speed rail and instead use the cash to improve Highway 99.
The bill specifies that the money "may be used by [California] for any project or activity to improve or maintain California State Route 99 between the cities of Sacramento and Bakersfield."
"This has always been the priority corridor for the Valley," the Visalia Republican said. "There has always been a bipartisan approach to widen the highway and improve air quality. This bill finally gives the state the option to get it done."
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a key high-speed rail supporter, complimented Nunes "for thinking out of the box and making sure those dollars stay in the Valley."
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Still, Swearengin said, the key is making sure the line is built.
"I think that our congressional delegation should be focused on streamlining the federal permitting process for high-speed rail in California," she said. "That would lower the cost of the train system and still allow us the economic boost that we know is going to come from high-speed rail."
Nunes is hoping for local support to sway California's two Democratic senators -- Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. If his bill makes it out of the Republican-controlled House, it would likely face a rockier road in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Jeff Denham of Atwater have signed on as co-sponsors, Nunes said. Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat and longtime high-speed rail supporter, declined to comment.
The money from the Obama administration is coming from federal stimulus funds and currently is specifically slated for high-speed rail. But the state also must meet a series of deadlines to keep the federal money. One of those deadlines is starting construction by late 2012.
Nunes stressed that his bill isn't mandatory, but could be a vital fallback position if the state can't meet the federal deadlines, which he said was "a high likelihood."
State High Speed Rail Authority officials declined to comment.
There is some wariness of the bill, which some feel could be a first step to derailing the high-speed rail project. Nunes himself is skeptical of its chances.
Swearengin said she "takes the bill at face value" and says it's "not a bad idea at all," but "I don't think we should take our eye off the ball of pursuing high-speed rail with everything we've got."