Hearing highlights doubts about California high-speed rail

WASHINGTON — California's ambitious high-speed rail program re-ignited high-level skirmishing Thursday that crosses party lines and shows every sign of extending into the foreseeable future.

Taken together, the sometimes combative rhetoric at a House committee hearing seemed to change no minds but did underscore the political barriers complicating California's high-speed rail program, now estimated to cost $98.5 billion over 20 years.

"The California project appears to be a disaster," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "The project seems to be imploding."

Other skeptics, not all of them Republicans, variously called California's proposed high-speed rail system a "boondoggle," a "fantasy train" and an "extremely poor investment" whose initial San Joaquin Valley route, Mica said, offers "more cows and vegetables...than riders."

Seemingly outnumbered on Capitol Hill, at least in the Republican-controlled House, California's high-speed rail proponents urged a longer-term perspective. Once ground is broken next year, or perhaps once the trains start running, advocates believe skeptics will come around.

"High-speed rail is not without its challenges," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin acknowledged, "but its operating model, dramatic improvements in travel time and affordable ticket price make it a compelling opportunity for our state and nation."

Dan Richard, a board member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, added in an interview that "construction is a game-changer" in securing more public and political support.

The long-term California plan calls for connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco with rails on which trains can travel up to 220 miles per hour. The overall $98 billion estimated cost is more than double original expectations.

California voters, so far, have approved a $9.9 billion bond measure. The Obama administration has kicked in $3.6 billion, in addition to several hundred million dollars for other California rail projects. Congressional Republicans have stymied further funding, contending that the public shouldn't subsidize an unproven project in which the private sector has not yet invested.

"We'd love to support it," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, Calif., but "my concern is, where's the (other) money going to come from?"

Denham chaired much of the four-hour hearing Thursday, which high-speed rail supporter Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, denounced in advance as a "dog and pony show." The arguments were frequently fervent, but missed by most. For much of the hearing, only three or four representatives from the 59-member committee were in attendance.

"Our plan," Swearengin said beforehand, "is just to continue to lay out the facts."

Each side offered its own preferred facts Thursday; the witnesses did not include a neutral analyst or arbiter who might help sort them out.

Roelof Van Ark, chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, emphasized the 100,000 Central Valley jobs and 3-million-ton annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions he said would result from the system. Los Angeles-to-San Francisco rail tickets, he predicted, would be only 83 percent of what it costs to fly.

"The need for this project is indisputable," said Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Skeptics, such as Elizabeth Alexis of the Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, countered with estimates that public subsidies will amount to nearly $100 per passenger for the first 30 years. Construction will require purchase of an estimated 1,100 parcels of land.

"This is going to hurt us," said Madera County farmer Kole Upton.

Gregory Gatzka, director of the Kings County Community Development Agency, added that "deplorable treatment" and dismissive attitudes by California High-Speed Rail Authority officials have aggravated public anxiety in rural areas.

Some of the congressional resistance seen Thursday appears to be manifestly partisan, as Republicans find a way to oppose an Obama administration priority. Some skepticism seems more rooted in regional competition for funding, and this is not just from Northeastern lawmakers. One Southern California Democrat, Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, worried Thursday that high-speed rail could "take away from local projects" that might improve much-needed mass transit in her district.

In the short term, this congressional skepticism does not directly hurt the California project, except as it may help poison California public opinion. No additional federal funds are needed for roughly the next three years. House bills to divert the high-speed rail funding to highway projects appear likely to die in the Senate, if they get that far.

Starting in Fiscal Year 2015, though, the project's business plan anticipates some $52 billion in federal grants, according to congressional estimates. This will bring Congress directly back into the fray that was foreshadowed Thursday.

Construction on the initial route is scheduled to start in the Fresno area late next year.

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