Despite legal setbacks, officials say California high-speed rail on track

State and federal officials assured lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday that California’s $68 billion high-speed rail system would move forward despite recent legal setbacks that have created new uncertainties for the embattled project.

In a three-hour hearing in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, six lawmakers from California testified before their own colleagues, with Democrats supporting the project and Republicans opposing it.

The exchange between the lawmakers and their colleagues stirred a long-simmering debate about whether California needs high-speed rail, whether the project costs too much and whether the funds could be better spent on other needs.

Voters approved bond funding for the project in 2008 based on an initial cost of $32 billion. But the project’s cost then soared to $98 billion. It was scaled back to $68 billion after changes were made that raised questions of whether California was getting the system that was promised.

A state superior court judge’s ruling in November effectively makes $8 billion in state bond funds unavailable to get the project started until the California High Speed Rail Authority reworks its financing plan.

“A court has ruled,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House railroad subcommittee, and a vocal critic of high-speed rail in the state. “There is no state match.”

The Federal Railroad Administration, meanwhile, has continued to make payments on its $3 billion commitment to the project. Denham questioned whether the Obama administration should continue to make those payments until the legal issues are resolved. He introduced legislation Wednesday to suspend the federal spending.

“Unless they come up with a viable plan,” Denham said, “I believe it’s time to end the project.”

He angrily challenged the administration for not answering letters and phone calls requesting data “we feel is necessary to conduct proper oversight.” The lawmaker also chastised Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo for not attending the hearing. Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Hedlund testified in his place.

“What are you hiding?” Denham asked Hedlund about the unanswered phone calls and letters.

Hedlund and California High Speed Rail Authority’s board chairman, Dan Richard, told lawmakers that there was no reason to stop federal payments to the project in spite of the setbacks.

“We are going to be building high-speed rail in California,” Richard said. “We believe we have the funds in hand.”

In his budget plan last week, Gov. Jerry Brown committed $250 million in state fees paid by carbon polluters to help the project. That still leaves nearly $55 billion the authority has to find somewhere else.

Lawmakers questioned where the authority would get the funding. Richard said no private companies had stepped up because they were waiting for the authority to use its federal stimulus dollars first.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking Republican in the House, wasn’t buying it.

“I have serious concerns about the authority’s finances,” he said. “Not one additional cent has been identified for this project.”

Even some Democrats expressed skepticism.

“We need to have more information from the authority about the benefits it brings to the public,” said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif.

Besides McCarthy, Republicans who spoke against the project were Reps. Doug LaMalfa and David Valadao. Democrats who testified in support were Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Loretta Sanchez and Jim Costa.

An initial 130-mile segment of high-speed track in California’s Central Valley was supposed to be under way, with federal funds covering the $2.6 billion construction cost. The line would eventually link Los Angeles with San Francisco, but Valadao, a freshman, questioned why the project had to begin in the middle of California’s prime agricultural region.

“If you’re hell-bent on spending the money, start somewhere that needs something,” Valadao testified.

Supporters noted that the state’s population, now at 38 million, is expected to increase to 50 million by 2030, and that the state’s airports and highways couldn’t keep up with the needs of residents now.

Some implied that the project’s criticism was less about substance and more about politics. Republicans widely oppose Obama’s high-speed rail program, and the entire economic stimulus.

“For those who oppose the project, give us your plan,” Costa testified.

While Denham said the tens of billions of dollars could pay for other critical infrastructure in the state, including water projects, highways and airports, with funds left over for education.

“It’s about priorities,” Denham said.

Richard noted that major state public works projects, including water and transit, were once regarded with skepticism. He said the high-speed rail project would be no different.

“This is not the first massive infrastructure project to face tests like these,” he said.