House move acts as warning to California rail plan

mdoyle@mcclatchydc.comJune 29, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textMichael Doyle
    Title: National correspondent
    Bio: Michael joined the McClatchy Washington Bureau in 1988 and writes stories from Washington for The Bee. He's a graduate of Oberlin College, and earned a master of studies in law from Yale Law School, where he was a Knight Journalism Fellow. He also earned a masters in government from The Johns Hopkins University.
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— California's high-speed rail plan is heading for some "Perils of Pauline" moments on Capitol Hill.

Reinforcing past resistance, a GOP-controlled House panel last week put two more obstacles in the way of the state's ambitious rail plan. For political and budgetary reasons, the latest proposed impediments may fade away in time.

But as a portent, the latest congressional moves show more conflict ahead for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. For opponents and advocates alike, today's melodramas are but the early installments of what looks to be a long-running serial.

"It's going to be tough for them to come asking for money, from anyone," Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said in an interview Friday.

On Thursday, Valadao won House Appropriations Committee approval for an amendment that would, if enacted, slow construction of the high-speed rail project. The amendment blocks the federal Surface Transportation Board from taking further action on any section of the project until the three-member board has formally approved it.

Because overall approval could be years away pending completion of a massive environmental impact study and a financing package, the result would be to delay construction of an initial section linking Bakersfield to Fresno, for which approvals have not yet been obtained. The federal board has approved work on a Fresno to Merced section.

"We want to make sure that when they start to spend taxpayer money, they know what the next step is," Valadao said.

Stung by the amendment, California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Chairman Dan Richard said Friday that the proposal was "kind of a goofy excursion" that is bound to fail in the end.

"There is no legitimate policy reason for this amendment," Richard said. "This is a political move … that basically says we can't spend the money we already have in hand."

When fully built at an estimated price tag of $68 billion, the California high-speed rail system is supposed to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco with trains capable of traveling more than 200 mph. The first construction phase, using a combination of state and federal funds, is to run through the San Joaquin Valley.

Bills would limit funding

Valadao's amendment, approved by voice vote, is one of two California high-speed rail provisions now included in the $44.1 billion appropriations bill funding federal transportation and housing programs for fiscal 2014. The bill includes language prohibiting any of the funds from being used for the California high-speed rail project.

This is where the political route map requires close scrutiny.

To take effect, Valadao's provision must survive negotiations with the Senate and be included in a bill that becomes law. Neither outcome is certain.

"He has some legitimate concerns," Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, said Friday, "but I don't see the two senators from California wanting to support that in a conference committee."

Farr is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, and he led the debate against the freshman Valadao's amendment Thursday. California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, support the California rail project.

There is a political question as to whether the often-gridlocked Congress can complete the standard appropriations bills. Congress has failed in the past three years to pass a complete transportation appropriations package, leaving in limbo some policy prescriptions legislators tacked on.

The other California rail provision in the appropriations bill also has some wrinkles, even though on its face it's a straightforward ban on funding.

"It doesn't make a difference because the federal funds have already been allocated," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a project supporter.

The federal government has provided about $3.5 billion to the project. This money can't be taken away, and no additional funds had been sought for next year.

For that reason, the no-funding provision may primarily be symbolic. But it sends California officials a grim signal about what they can expect in coming years.

"At a certain point, they have made it very clear that they are going to need $38 billion in federal funds," said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, "and we are making it very clear that they won't receive a penny until they have a business plan."

Denham said Friday he will use his chairmanship of the House railroad subcommittee to stymie further federal funding for the California project, unless he is satisfied it is on track.

Later this year, Denham will oversee the rewriting of a five-year Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which he said will include language touching on high-speed rail.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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