Politics & Government

McCarthy: California high-speed rail plan doesn't make grade

WASHINGTON — House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday denounced California's current high-speed rail plans, further clouding the political future of an ambitious project running through his own Central Valley hometown.

A fourth-generation Bakersfield native, McCarthy said Tuesday that California and the federal government would both be wise to avoid spending billions of dollars on a train he predicted would become a money sink.

"In today's world, is that the best place to put the money? The answer is no," McCarthy told reporters. "I don't think it's a smart investment."

Echoing other critics, McCarthy on Tuesday characterized the initial planned 123-mile route from Bakersfield to tiny Borden in rural Madera County as a "train to nowhere." He said the train would be poorly used and would inevitably leave taxpayers on the hook for endless subsidies.

"Look at where California is (financially)," McCarthy said. "They don't have enough money to build it now."

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has long-term plans to build an 800-mile system connecting Los Angeles with the San Francisco Bay Area. Trains are supposed to travel upward of 220 miles per hour, in some stretches.

California voters in 2008 approved a $9.9 billion bond measure to start the project, whose final cost will end up being much more.

The Obama administration has committed about $3.6 billion to boost California's high-speed rail project. Additional money could soon become available, following Florida's recent rejection of $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail funds.

"I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America's high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared following Florida's decision.

The Transportation Department has not said when it will announce the redistribution of the money Florida didn't want.

On Capitol Hill, though, McCarthy's skepticism reinforces doubts already raised by other lawmakers who represent the Valley region through which the train would roar.

One of McCarthy's colleagues, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, has authored a bill to divert high-speed rail funds to improving State Route 99. McCarthy supports the bill.

Another colleague, freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, authored a short-lived amendment that would have blocked federal spending this year on the state's rail project. Denham ultimately withdrew his amendment in exchange for what he described as strict congressional oversight on rail spending.

"The project has lacked adequate cost controls, the transparency our Valley farmers deserve and the oversight our taxpayers demand," Denham declared.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, added his own doubts following selection of the initial route to Borden, saying "the process used to come to this decision was deceptive and suspect at best and may be violative of the law at worst." Among lawmakers representing the southern half of the Central Valley, that leaves only Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, as an enthusiastic supporter of current high-speed rail plans.

"There is no better place to start than in California," Costa told a high-speed rail conference last month.

But McCarthy, whose congressional district stretches from the Valley to San Luis Obispo, also has a broad Capitol Hill wingspan that enhances the significance of his high-speed rail skepticism. As whip, he ranks third in House leadership and serves the GOP's chief vote-wrangler.

The leadership position gives McCarthy more clout in shaping bills, such as the House's budget-cutting fiscal 2011 spending bill passed last month that would reduce high-speed rail funding by $1 billion.

"If you can't prove it's viable from a business plan, it's not a (project) the government should be funding," McCarthy said Tuesday.