California High-Speed Rail Draws Congressional Scrutiny

Federal Rail Administrator Joseph Szabo says that the feds remain committed to the controversial program.
by | December 15, 2011

Congressional Republicans blasted the progress of the high-speed rail program in California, after a recent poll of voters there revealed 59 percent of them would reject the previously-approved billions in bonds for the project if they could vote again.

The hearing, conducted by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, comes a week after a similar session in which Republicans questioned the administration’s high-speed rail initiatives.

Last time, it was Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who took the brunt of the committee’s criticism. Today, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Joseph Szabo was in the hot seat, often getting into testy exchanges with the committee's Republican members.

Republicans on the committee repeatedly made their case to both Szabo and California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof Van Ark that federal taxpayers shouldn’t have to risk their money on an investment that is increasingly coming under harsh questioning.

The rail project -- which would ultimately stretch 800 miles through the state -- was initially projected to cost $43 billion when California voters approved $9.95 billion in bonds in 2008. Additionally, the project has received nearly $3.9 billion in federal funding, which represents about 39 percent of FRA’s high-speed rail funding, according to committee chair John Mica.

But a revised business plan released last month more than doubles the estimated cost to $98.5 billion and delays the expected completion date by 13 years. That news -- as well as admissions by rail officials that they hope to get private investors but lack firm commitments -- has drawn increased scrutiny of the effort.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, whose district includes the eastern half of Fresno County, Calif., called the project “a case study in how not to run a government program.” Nunes is one of 11 California Republicans who have signed onto a bill that would prevent any future federal funding for California high-speed rail.

California's Legislative Analyst's Office – the state’s equivalent of the federal Congressional Budget Office – noted in a report earlier this year that the system has "little if any chance of generating the ridership to operate without a significant state subsidy." Republicans have pounced on that aspect of the report, since the voter-approved bond is contingent on the railroad operating without subsidies.

Yet Szabo criticized the LAO’s analysis, saying it should have contacted his office before writing any reports. He maintained that the federal government will will continue to show it's support.

“We’re not going to flinch from that support,” Szabo said, referring to the first phase of project.  He said that if officials express uncertainly about the viability of the project, it could have a damaging effect and deter private investment. “The worst thing we could do is make obligations to folks and then start to renege on our word.”

Several Democrats on the committee questioned the meeting itself. Congress has already eliminated federal funding for high-speed rail in FY 2012, dealing a major blow to one of the Obama administration's key priorities.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers spent a half-day on the hearing at a time when there was speculation a federal shutdown loomed. And as one Democrat noted, the committee held two hearings in two weeks that examined the failure of high-speed rail, even though the committee hasn’t completed its two biggest priorities: a surface transportation authorization and an FAA bill.

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