California Rep. Jeff Denham juggles national, local needs on House rail panel

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), left, and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) lbefore boarding an Amtrak train at Union Station in Washington, DC
House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), left, and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) lbefore boarding an Amtrak train at Union Station in Washington, DC MCT

High-speed rail has dominated the transportation debate in California in recent years, but the state has other passenger and freight rail needs that have received less attention, transportation experts say.

Supporters of rail investments may have a Washington ally in Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

His opposition to a high-speed rail project in his own backyard was well known before he took the panel’s gavel in January. Now the two-term congressman will set the tone in Congress for what rail investments should be national priorities.

“We might have some clout now,” said Vito Chiesa, chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. “I think he’s going to have a lot of sway.”

By several measures, California plays an important role in the nation’s rail traffic. Its passenger trains have the highest ridership outside the Northeast, and the rest of the country depends on its freight lines to move a staggering quantity of goods from the ports to everywhere else.

Denham has started with a series of recent field hearings, but on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In New York earlier this month, he drew attention to Amtrak’s busy, but antiquated Northeast Corridor. The following week in Chicago, he discussed the city’s notorious freight-rail chokepoints.

“It bothers me that he’s not more aggressive in creating jobs in our community,” said Al Smith, president of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.

Denham, who declined to comment for this story, held a field hearing in the Central Valley last month on high-speed rail. His position on the project, which is slated to break ground this summer, aligns with many of his constituents, but runs counter to business and civic leaders in the region, who otherwise see eye-to-eye with him.

“We’re on the same side of the ledger on many things,” said Smith.

Denham has said that rail investments should be made in areas with proven need, and few would argue against replacing old bridges and tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, or reducing rail congestion in the Windy City.

But California has needs, too. The state’s population, now 38 million, is projected to swell to more than 50 million by mid-century. The challenge of moving people and goods over already congested highways and railroads won’t disappear.

“You can’t just oppose high-speed rail,” said Lawrence Giventer, professor emeritus of politics and public administration at California State University, Stanislaus. “You have to come up with something else.”

Others who know Denham say he’s just trying to strike a balance between national priorities and local needs.

“As a chairman, he has to walk a different line,” said Stacey Mortensen, executive director of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. “He has to give due to a lot of other locations as well.”

Mortensen described Denham as a longtime supporter of Altamont Commuter Express, a commuter train her agency operates from San Jose to Stockton. Ridership on the train, which runs through part of Denham’s district, has grown since it began operating in 1998. There are plans to extend it deeper into the Central Valley, to Modesto and Merced, and Mortensen counts Denham as a supporter of those efforts.

“He came out and rode with passengers a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “They appreciated that.”

But plans to expand commuter and passenger rail in California run into a roadblock: freight trains. Unlike the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak owns and is almost exclusively dedicated to passenger trains, Amtrak and commuter trains in California share tracks owned by freight railroads. And those rails are busier than ever.

Tony Hatch, a rail industry consultant, said the nation’s economy can’t afford congestion in California.

“It is the origin point of traffic coming in from Asia,” he said. “Retail and manufacturing is counting on parts and goods” to be delivered by rail.

One project is under way at Colton Crossing, a four-way rail intersection near San Bernardino, Calif., where more than 100 trains a day cross each other’s path on their way to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The $208 million project, which will build an overpass to separate one railroad’s trains from the other’s, includes a $33.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It will be completed next year.

But Colton Crossing isn’t the only chokepoint. According to the draft California State Rail Plan, growth in U.S. exports will stress the state’s key rail links, and the potential impacts could stretch far across the country.

Smith and others cite Amtrak’s Capitol, San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner corridors in California. With roughly 5 million annual passengers, California accounts for 20 percent of Amtrak’s ridership nationally.

“The very fact that Amtrak is doing so well here kind of dispels the argument that people won’t leave their cars,” Smith said. “It’s very important that we have other modes of transportation.”

Chiesa, who also supports expanded rail service, said the rail lines shared by Amtrak, commuter and freight trains need more capacity. It could be decades before high-speed rail connects the state’s population centers, and Chiesa said Denham is generally supportive of improving the existing trains.

“I think he’s in a great position to get us some investment,” Chiesa said.

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