Saturday, July 7, 2012

California High Speed Rail Plans Under Attack In Washington

July 6 the California Senate voted 21-16 to approve a $4.5 billion bond issue funding construction of passenger rail transportation improvements in the state, including $2.6 billion for construction of the initial 130 mile run of high speed railroad tracks in the Central Valley, despite growing opposition in Congress to any further federal funding for the project. The California Senate vote came on the last day possible to permit the state to claim a grant of $3.2 billion in federal funds already allocated to the project since Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have rejected grants for high speed rail development in their states which were approved under the 2009 stimulus legislation.

The party line California Senate vote drew praise from high speed rail supporters, and opprobrium from opponents, while in Washington, D.C. Republican determination to squelch the project grows stronger. The initial track run from Madera to Bakersfield is part of a proposed San Francisco to Los Angeles high speed line costing a projected $68 billion. The $1.9 billion balance of the bond proceeds approved Friday will go toward construction of passenger rail improvements elsewhere in the state, including electrification of Caltran, a commuter line from San Francisco to San Jose, and southern California Metrolink upgrades.

High speed rail supporters lavished praise on the bill. U. S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said, “No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows. With highways between California cities congested and airspace at a premium, Californians desperately need an alternative.” Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman called the vote “a courageous step forward for California’s future.

On the other side of the political aisle, Huntington Beach Republican Senator Tom Harman said, “It’s unfortunate that the majority would rather spend billions of dollars that we don’t have for a train to nowhere than to keep schools open and harmless from budget cuts.” Granite Bay Republican Senator Ted Gaines lamented that the project “will require endless subsidies and will blast a hole into our budget.” Finally, Palo Alto Democratic Senator Joe Simitian expressed doubts the LA to SF high speed line will ever see completion: “Is there additional commitment of federal funds? There is not. Is there additional commitment of private funding? There is not. Is there a dedicated funding source we can look to in the coming years? There is not.”

Senator Simitian’s dour outlook is not at all out of touch with reality. Republican opposition to high speed rail construction projects in general, and the SF to LA line in particular, peppered the final days of debate over the 27 month Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill Congress just passed. June 29 the House voted 239-185 in favor of a proposed amendment to the measure which would have expressly prohibited any more federal dollars being spent on the California high speed rail construction project. Although that amendment was dropped from the final measure by the conference committee, Republican Congressmen from California remain adamant in opposition to further federal money going to high speed rail in their own state.

“In light of the federal government’s trillion dollar budget deficits, there is no money for a lot of things, including the poorly planned, massive boondoggle of high speed rail,” according to California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes. The House Appropriations Committee’s official report decries “unrealistic new high speed rails to nowhere.”

Mass transit in general, and high speed rail in particular, are popular targets for Republican congressional sniping. California Republican Congressman Jeff Denham, speaking in support of the proposed amendment banning further expenditures on California high speed rail development summed up the sentiment: “We need to make sure that our gas tax dollars get used for their intended purpose of actually improving our roads and highways.” It seems doubtful we will ever get those California Republican Representatives out of their Bentleys and onto the rails.

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