WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday insisted he will continue promoting expensive high-speed rail programs despite skepticism that is gaining momentum in California and other states.
The Capitol Hill clash at an occasionally combative House hearing underscored how wrangling will cloud national high-speed rail efforts for the foreseeable future. For states, at the very least, this means continued uncertainty about new federal funding.
"We will not be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics," LaHood insisted to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, adding that "transportation has always been bipartisan. There are no Republican and Democratic railroads."
There are, though, competing Republican and Democratic assessments of high-speed rail's viability, particularly when one party controls the White House and the other party controls at least part of Congress.
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The Obama administration and a Congress then run by Democrats in 2009 included $8 billion in additional stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects. California has been awarded upward of $3.9 billion to help start the first sections of a project through the San Joaquin Valley.
But for the past two fiscal years, the House, now controlled by Republicans, has blocked new high-speed rail funds. GOP lawmakers also have sought to retrieve rail grants that have been announced but not yet fully committed.
"I want to create American jobs, but at what cost?" Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, pressed LaHood. "Where does that money come from?"
The California high-speed rail project, notably, now has a total 20-year price tag pegged at $98 billion, more than double the original estimates of $43 billion. The predicted completion date also has been pushed back.
The first section is supposed to run between Bakersfield and Chowchilla, with construction slated to start next fall near Fresno. Over the long haul, the California High-Speed Rail Authority speaks of connecting San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco with trains traveling up to 220 mph.
"I don't believe there's enough money in California to complete that project," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.
Shuster leads the railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials subcommittee on the House transportation committee, putting him in a particularly strong position to oppose Obama's rail plans. The chairman of the full House transportation panel, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., reiterated on Tuesday his own doubts about the California project.
Shuster also has a parochial interest in the fight for limited federal dollars, as he stressed Tuesday his interest in spending more rail money in the Northeast. More Californians appear to be thinking the same, only three years after having approved a $9.9 billion bond measure in support of the state project. Nearly two-thirds of California voters want a second chance to vote on the rail bond measure, a Field Poll survey revealed this week. In a re-vote, 59% said they would reject the rail money.
A House transportation committee hearing has been scheduled for next week to focus specifically on the California project, giving GOP lawmakers another chance to publicly critique its costs and benefits.
Underscoring the increasingly partisan divide, House Democrats were the ones to speak up Tuesday on behalf of high-speed rail funding.
LaHood, a former Republican congressman, said that he has been doing what he can to help lure outside rail investors to California.
"It's not a cheap project," he said, "but it's an essential one ... the people in California want this."