GOP, Democrats have competing visions of Calif. rail study

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are now competing to influence the next big review of California high-speed rail, underscoring the project's new political vulnerability.

Following a devastating state study issued Tuesday, a congressional watchdog agency is considering making its own assessment of the ambitious, $98.5 billion rail plan. Capitol Hill advocates already are trying to shape the questions that investigators ask, possibly hoping for answers helpful to their respective causes.

"Trying to get an objective response that is based in the facts rather than in politics, is essential," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif., said Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Office has been prompted to study California high-speed rail by opponents of the state's program, led by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Calif., and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, Calif.

GAO spokesman Charles Young said Wednesday the agency's formal decision on whether to do a study could take several more weeks.

But with the GAO cranking out nearly 1,000 reports and congressional hearing statements each year, and with myriad House members on board, it's likely a high-speed rail study will be done.

"We accept most congressional requests," Young noted.

A new federal study would complement — or, perhaps, contrast with — other studies, including the sharply critical review issued Tuesday by the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group. The California panel called the current rail plan "not feasible" and urged state legislators not to issue $2.7 billion in bonds.

A separate 2011 study by the state Legislative Analyst's Office raised concerns, as well. On Wednesday, Denham — citing a state analyst — alleged that Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Joseph Szabo "egregiously misstated" last December that the state office had not contacted the federal rail agency as part of its study.

A Transportation Department spokesman replied Wednesday that though "there were staff level conversations," the Federal Railroad Administration leadership was "never contacted...on the project as a whole."

In their Dec. 20 request to the GAO, high-speed rail skeptics tilted investigators toward questions critical of California's plans. These include citing the state's "questionable ridership and cost projections" as well as the need for future subsidies and the "adverse economic impacts" resulting from seizing private land.

Twelve House members championed the original request for a GAO investigation, all Republicans. Ten are from California.

"I have requested the...study to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used efficiently and effectively, and answer questions many California taxpayers have about the project's viability," Denham said in a statement Wednesday.

This week, Costa and 10 other House Democrats — eight from California — countered with their own competing study recommendations. The Democrats, in essence, urged investigators to consider questions that might make California's project look better.

The Democrats, for instance, want a comparison of California's plan with the high-speed rail costs in the Northeast, as well as a comparison of federal subsidies associated with other forms of transportation.

Democrats also urged the GAO to use a specific definition of high-speed rail — involving speeds greater than 125 miles per hour — when comparing California's plans to other states and regions.

This is a less ambitious target than the 220 miles-per-hour pace that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has pegged for the San Joaquin Valley segments of the project.

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