Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said Friday that billions of dollars in federal funds should be spent on high-speed rail -- just not in California.
Denham, the chairman of the railroads subcommittee in the House of Representatives and like many fellow House Republicans a critic of California's high-speed rail project, said the money should go instead to Amtrak's busy but aging Northeast Corridor, which serves the nation's most densely populated region.
"Given that there are over 11.4 million Amtrak riders and over 200 million commuters that use the Northeast Corridor every year, it would be an investment in an area where we have proven ridership," Denham said at a hearing at the site of the future Moynihan Station in New York, which is intended to replace the cramped Penn Station across the street.
Denham and other members of Congress, joined by Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman, rode a train Thursday from Washington to New York and saw for themselves many of the century-old bridges and tunnels that limit the number of trains the line can accommodate, as well as the speeds they can travel.
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California's high-speed rail project is set to break ground in the central San Joaquin Valley this summer. The project is a top transportation priority for Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama, both Democrats. About $6 billion in state and federal funding will be spent building the "backbone" of an eventual 780-mile system that would connect the state's big population centers: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who chairs the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has frequently criticized the California project as a misplaced investment. But there's little that Shuster, who accompanied Denham and other members of the committee to New York, can do to shift the money elsewhere.
"Unlike what the administration has proposed, we recognize that we do not have unlimited funds, so we need to focus on what makes sense and prioritize investment in infrastructure that we know is achievable," Shuster said in written testimony Friday.
Rod Diridon, the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University and former chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, said that more than 15 years of federally required studies supported the project's viability.
"We ought to be building a system in the fastest-growing area in the United States: the state of California," he said.
But few transportation experts, including Diridon, dispute that investment in the Northeast Corridor is needed.
Testifying at Friday's hearing, Boardman said that in addition to Amtrak's 157 trains, more than 1,800 commuter trains a day use the Northeast Corridor, which stretches roughly 450 miles from Washington to Boston.
Amtrak upgraded the route in the late 1970s, but Boardman said those investments didn't anticipate major growth in passengers.
"Today we are handling twice the number of commuter trains," he said, "on essentially the same infrastructure."
Some of that infrastructure is showing its age, and Denham pointed to specific examples:
-- A pair of tunnels under Baltimore that were built in the 1870s have become a major bottleneck. Even Amtrak's flagship Acela train creeps through at 30 mph. It would cost about $1.5 billion to replace them.
-- Bridges over the Susquehanna River in Maryland and the Hackensack River in New Jersey, both built in the early 1900s, are two places where the generally three- and four-track corridor narrows to two. Replacing the spans would cost nearly $2 billion.
"I believe the $6 billion that was given to the California High-Speed Rail Authority could be better spent on such upgrades, as these projects are both clearly identified, and necessary beyond dispute," Denham said.
Amtrak captures three-quarters of the air-rail market between Washington and New York, and unlike most of the system's heavily subsidized long-distance routes, the Northeast Corridor more than pays for its operating costs.
Diridon said the corridor's success could be replicated in California.
"High-speed rail works," he said. "All you have to do is provide it to the public, and the public wants it."