WASHINGTON -- The influential chairman of the House transportation committee voiced skepticism Wednesday about California's high-speed rail plans.
While not ruling out eventual support for California, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he's unimpressed by what he's seen so far. Mica specifically questioned the state's current plans to start with tracks connecting a rural stretch of the central San Joaquin Valley.
"The problem with the California pick is that even if they build it, the ridership in that location is not going to be the best," Mica said.
Relying on some $3.2 billion in federal funds promised to date, California's High-Speed Rail Authority identified a route between Fresno and Bakersfield as the first stage of the state project.
In time, officials hope that an 800-mile high-speed rail system will run from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.
Speaking at a conference of high-speed rail advocates, Mica underscored his preference for investing in the nation's heavily traveled Northeast corridor. Pointedly, he warned the rail professionals gathered Wednesday that "if [we] build California's project, and nobody rides it," then overall public support for high-speed rail could diminish.
"It may be able to achieve high speed, but the problem is it may be lacking in ridership and will have to be subsidized for some time," Mica said of the California proposal. "That's not the best model."
Mica added in a brief interview that "we'll have to find out more" about California's plans, and he emphasized that he's still in the information-gathering stage.
Mica's views matter, in particular, because his panel formally known as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will be writing a six-year transportation authorization bill this year. This bill could be a blueprint for federal high-speed rail work.
"There is no better place to start than California," insisted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
Speaking before the same high-speed rail conference, Costa stressed that "California is home to the second, third, and fifth most-trafficked corridors serviced by Amtrak." He called the high-speed rail proposal an "economic and quality of life game-changer" for the San Joaquin Valley.
On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden presented the Obama administration's own initial bargaining position, with a call for $8 billion in high-speed rail spending next year and a total of $53 billion for high-speed and inter-city rail over the next six years.
The six-year plan is where Mica and his committee will come in. The 59-member panel includes six Californians.
The give and take will accelerate later this month, as the House transportation panel conducts a nationwide series of hearings, including ones in Fresno and Los Angeles. The hearings conducted sometime between Feb. 17-25 will give skeptics and proponents alike a chance to make their case, as the committee pushes to complete its bill-writing by about September.
"One of our jobs is to explain the strategy that we have come up with," said Fresno developer Tom Richards, a board member of California's High-Speed Rail Authority.
The Fresno hearing will be followed by a session in Los Angeles, where Mica will join forces with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
A committee spokesperson did not return repeated calls Wednesday seeking details about hearing dates, and California congressional offices had no additional information on timing.