WASHINGTON -- The House on Wednesday boosted California's prospects for a high-speed passenger rail system that eventually could serve the San Joaquin Valley.
Expensive and ambitious, California's high-speed rail program is still in its infancy. But as part of a rail transportation bill with wide bipartisan appeal, the House included a $1.75 billion grant program designed to help high-speed rail get rolling nationwide.
"This measure will give a big shot in the arm to assist California," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, adding that high-speed rail "will be a state-of-the-art system we will depend on."
The House bill provides $350 million annually for high-speed rail projects through the year 2013. States and groups of states could apply for grants to build rail corridors served by trains that travel at least 110 miles per hour.
The funding inevitably will attract stiff competition, and the bill does not specifically cite California as a guaranteed recipient. The Transportation Department must select projects that "generate national economic benefits" and "reduce congestion," among other criteria. The bill further requires "stable and dependable" funding from non-federal sources.
In November, Californians will vote on a $9.95 billion bond measure that would help build the high-speed system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco via the San Joaquin Valley. The state still will require federal funding for one-third of the total project cost, according to the California High Speed Rail Authority.
"This is sorely needed," Costa said.
California rail officials have estimated they might need upward of $40 billion to complete the planned high-speed rail project. Skeptics suggest the costs inevitably will rise even higher on a project whose benefits may be elusive.
"High-speed rail in California is a very difficult proposition, because you have to go through and around the mountains," David Levinson, an assistant professor of transportation engineering at the University of Minnesota, noted in an interview Wednesday.
Levinson, who has studied the California high-speed proposals, added that "even if they got approval this year, it will still take years and years to build." He suggested high-speed rail might make more sense in a congested region like the Northeast.
Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in an interview Wednesday that the House action was a "financial recognition" of the imminence of high-speed rail development.
"It certainly advances the California high-speed rail project," Kopp said. "It's a sign to voters in California of the (congressional) commitment to high-speed rail, and it contains at least the beginning of available funds."
Kopp's ally Costa is one of the House's most vocal proponents of super-fast trains. He has traveled to Japan to research the trains and has introduced several bills this Congress to encourage high-speed rail. His legislation specified California as a beneficiary, unlike the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act approved by the House on Wednesday.
The House bill, approved 311-104, cites the Northeast corridor as one for which the Transportation Department might consider high-speed proposals, but the legislation adds that other projects might be considered as well. It's not clear how much money any one corridor might receive.
"This is not just limited to Washington and New York," insisted Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. "It's open to the entire nation."
The bill further specifies that only regions designated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a high-speed corridor may be eligible for funding. California's is one of 11 such corridors currently recognized, with state and federal officials anticipating trains eventually zipping along at up to 220 miles per hour. Potential stops include Fresno, Bakersfield and an unspecified location in the Visalia area.
The Senate last year approved a similar rail bill, which covers Amtrak and a host of related rail issues. The House and Senate must now reconcile their differences.
A separate House bill still awaiting action would authorize high-speed rail bonds, to further help finance projects.
"People would beg, would beg, to get on that train at 120 miles per hour and get their business done," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio.