WASHINGTON — High-speed rail skeptics gained new traction Wednesday with the promotion of Rep. Jeff Denham to chairmanship of the House panel that oversees railroads.
A sharp critic of California's ambitious high-speed rail plan, the Turlock Republican can use his post to challenge one of the Obama administration's top public works priorities. Rail legislation must pass through Denham's subcommittee, which can hold hearings to shed potentially unflattering light on projects such as California's.
"I'm opposed to it, but I'm going to work with the California High-Speed Rail Authority on going forward," Denham said Wednesday. "I want to work together with them, though I still have doubts about their funding and ridership numbers."
Underscoring his new leadership position, as well as his stated willingness to keep an open mind, Denham met early Wednesday on Capitol Hill with the California High-Speed Rail Authority's two top officials, board chairman Dan Richard and chief executive officer Jeff Morales.
"We look forward to working closely with Congressman Denham in his new position as we move forward in delivering high-speed rail to California," Richard said in a statement, adding that the officials "had a very collegial and productive meeting."
Boosted by Obama administration funding approved while Democrats still controlled the House and Senate, high-speed rail projects are advancing through California, the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and East Coast. Some of the projects are more politically divisive than others.
California's plan, aided so far by more than $3.2 billion in federal funds, calls for an initial high-speed rail segment to be constructed linking Bakersfield and Merced. Construction is supposed to start this year. Eventually, the state is planning on a 520-mile system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, with trains traveling up to 220 mph.
Denham and GOP lawmakers including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, had been supportive of high-speed rail projects but have become vocal opponents of the California project in particular.
During the last Congress, notably, Denham, McCarthy and their allies pushed legislation to block further federal funding for California's high-speed rail program.
"If we want to stay competitive in the international economy, we cannot continue to lay behind countries like China in developing a 21st century infrastructure," Rep. David Price, D-N.C., declared during one debate, adding that high-speed rail will "relieve congestion, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and make our neighborhoods more livable," among other potential benefits.
Denham and McCarthy, among other lawmakers, pushed the Government Accountability Office to closely study the California rail project. The study is under way, although a preliminary report last month identified "strengths and weaknesses" in the state's cost estimates.
"Risks of inaccurate forecasts are a recurring challenge for sponsors of this project," the GAO reported. "Research on ridership and revenue forecasts for rail infrastructure projects have shown that ridership forecasts are often overestimated and actual ridership is likely to be lower."
California officials now estimate the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system will cost $68 billion by the year 2029, with the state's business plan anticipating about $38 billion coming from the federal government. Ripe topics for congressional review include the availability of this future federal funding, the potential necessity for ongoing government subsidies, and challenges involving routing and land acquisition decisions.
Starting his second House term, Denham ascended to chairmanship of what's formally called the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee as part of the musical chairs that accompany every new Congress.
The panel's previous chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., has moved up this year to become chairman of the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-0006.