High-speed rail skeptics gained new traction Wednesday with the promotion of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, to chairmanship of the House panel that oversees railroads.
A sharp critic of California's ambitious high-speed rail plan, Denham can use his post to challenge one of the Obama administration's top public works priorities. Future rail legislation must pass through Denham's subcommittee, which can also hold hearings to shed potentially unflattering light on specific projects like California's.
"I'm opposed to it, but I'm going to work with the California High-Speed Rail Authority on going forward," Denham said Wednesday. "I want to work together with them, though I still have doubts about their funding and ridership numbers."
Underscoring his new leadership position, as well as his stated willingness to keep an open mind, Denham met early Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill with the California High-Speed Rail Authority's two top officials, board chairman Dan Richard and chief executive officer Jeff Morales. In a statement, Richard described the meeting as "collegial and productive."
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Boosted by Obama administration funding approved while Democrats still controlled both House and Senate, high-speed rail projects are advancing through the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, East Coast and California. Some of the projects are more politically divisive than others.
California's plan, aided so far by more than $3.2 billion in federal funds, calls for an initial high-speed rail segment to be constructed linking Bakersfield and Merced. Construction is supposed to start this year. Eventually, the state is planning on a 520-mile system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, with trains traveling up to 220 mph.
Denham and other GOP lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, were previously supportive of high-speed rail projects but have since become vocal opponents of the California project in particular.
During the last Congress, notably, Denham, McCarthy and their allies pushed legislation to block further federal funding for California's high-speed rail program.
During one debate, North Carolina Democrat David Price lobbied for high-speed rail: "If we want to stay competitive in the international economy, we cannot continue to lay behind countries like China in developing a 21st century infrastructure," adding that high-speed rail will "relieve congestion, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and make our neighborhoods more livable," among other potential benefits.
Denham and McCarthy, among other lawmakers, also pushed the Government Accountability Office to closely study the California rail project. The study is still underway, though a preliminary report last month identified both "strengths and weaknesses" in the state's cost estimates.
"Risks of inaccurate forecasts are a recurring challenge for sponsors of this project," the GAO reported. "Research on ridership and revenue forecasts for rail infrastructure projects have shown that ridership forecasts are often overestimated and actual ridership is likely to be lower."
California officials now estimate the complete Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system will cost $68 billion by the year 2029, with the state's business plan anticipating about $38 billion coming from the federal government. Ripe topics for congressional review include the availability of this future federal funding, the potential necessity for ongoing government subsidies and challenges involving routing and land acquisition decisions.
Now starting his second House term, Denham ascended to chairmanship of what's formally called the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee as part of the musical chairs that accompany every new Congress. The panel's prior chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has moved up this year to become chair of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.