The latest attempt to stall California’s high speed rail by the $68 billion project’s most persistent Capitol Hill critic now faces scrutiny in the Senate.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who has tried multiple times to derail federal funding, successfully pushed a measure through the House of Representatives this week that would nullify a three-year-old agreement between the state’s high-speed rail authority and the Federal Railroad Administration. It basically calls for the state to make good on the original agreement with the rail agency that it would match federal aid dollar for dollar.
As the state didn’t keep pace with its required match, the federal government subsequently changed the agreement to allow federal dollars to continue to be spent.
“This amendment will finally hold California high-speed rail accountable for its finances,” Denham said in a statement.
Though he wields some influence as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, Denham’s latest effort to thwart the California project faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Last summer, his measure to withhold federal funds from the project was eventually dropped in negotiations between the House and Senate on the funding package for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
"It's sad that a California congressman would block our state from receiving federal funds that would help our economy," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said following the House vote on Denham’s amendment.
Denham spokeswoman Jordan Langdon said the congressman hadn’t yet had a chance to speak with Senate leaders. Republicans won a majority in the Senate last November.
A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration predicted Denham’s latest maneuver would not be successful.
“California’s transportation network is among the most congested in the U.S., and the California high- speed rail project is critical to keeping the world’s eighth largest economy growing and America moving forward,” said Matthew Lehner. “Efforts to derail this project have consistently failed before, and we are confident this latest one will too.”
Denham supported high-speed rail as a California state senator. but since his election to Congress in 2010, he has taken the opposite side. In numerous hearings, he has questioned the competence of the project’s management and expressed doubts that the 520-mile spine of the system will ever see a train.
When a group of local, state and federal officials broke ground on the first segment of the 220-mph line in Fresno in January, Denham was absent.
“It’s hard to celebrate breaking ground on what is likely to become abandoned pieces of track that never connect to a useable segment,” he said then.
Also Tuesday, House Republicans voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by $242 million from the last fiscal year. California’s short-distance Amtrak routes have the second-highest ridership outside the Northeast Corridor. The overall transportation and housing bill squeaked through the House on a vote of 216-210.
Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said that Denham's latest attempt to stymie the project would have little impact.
"The bottom line," Richard said in a statement, "is that high-speed rail is under construction."
Whatever the project’s ultimate fate, it’s been caught up in a six-year political fight that echoes all the way from Washington to Sacramento.
President Barack Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the economic stimulus law, allocated more than $3 billion to get high-speed rail moving in California.
After Republicans won control of the House in 2010, they began trying to chip away at his priorities, including the California project. Denham led the charge, aided by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., now the House Majority Leader. Like Denham, McCarthy also supported high-speed rail as a member of the California Assembly.
It isn’t just Obama’s legacy that’s riding on California high-speed rail. The project is a top goal of Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat elected last year to a fourth term.
But some high-profile Democrats have also walked away from high-speed rail, most notably, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s considered a leading prospect to succeed Brown after 2018. Other top Democrats haven’t staked out a clear position on the project, including state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who’s running for the Senate next year.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story contained two unnecessary paragraphs, which have been removed.