LaHood Defends High-Speed Rail

Transportation Secretary comes into hot seat as California voters become increasingly frustrated with project.
by , | December 6, 2011

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood vehemently defended the administration’s high speed rail plans during a testy Congressional hearing Tuesday, deflecting Republican criticism of the efforts by emphasizing the projects’ ability to create jobs.

LaHood spoke before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee – a committee on which he served while a congressman – which was questioning the viability of the administration’s high-speed rail projects throughout the country.

Committee Chairman John Mica made the same point he’s made in recent months: The costs of high-speed rail investments, and lack of progress to date, suggest a need for serious reevaluation.

LaHood’s testimony came the same day that California media reported on a new poll that found 59 percent of California voters would vote against selling $9 billion in bonds for the state's high-speed rail initiative if the issue was put to a new vote today. The public's attitude has changed since the state rail authority announced last month that the project would cost an estimated $98.5 billion, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, more than twice the previously announced expense. They also delayed the expected completion date by 13 years. Voters initially approved the spending three years ago.

The federal government has obligated more than $4.2 billion toward high-speed rail efforts in California, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The committee will host a future hearing that deals exclusively with the California high-speed rail efforts.

The Obama Administration’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program was launched in 2009, when it was allocated $8 billion in stimulus funds, with the goal of providing 80 percent of Americans with access to high speed rail within 25 years. Congress didn’t fund it in FY 2011 or the new FY 2012.

But Mica, citing numerous projects such as a Chicago-to-St. Louis line and a Portland-to-Vancouver line, say the efforts haven’t lived up their expectations of becoming truly "high-speed." LaHood said more time is needed.

The controversy over the merits of the projects reached a boiling point earlier this year, when the newly-elected Republican governors of Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin all turned down federal money for high-speed rail in their states, citing the costs of maintaining the programs and their desire to spend the money on other infrastructure projects. Those funds were distributed to high-speed rail projects in other states.

But LaHood defended the programs during nearly two hours of testimony -- on his birthday, no less -- saying that despite the high-profile cases of those governors, high-speed rail is popular and in-demand. He says more than 500 applicants have requested federal funds for high-speed rail projects since the initiative was launched in 2009.

Meanwhile, LaHood reiterated the case that both he and the president have frequently made: investing in those projects will help put Americans to work. “This money is going to small businesses, going to big businesses, going to contractors, and going to American workers,” LaHood said.

He also suggested the country has an obligation to future generations to make the investment, citing the lasting legacy of the interstate highway system. He used that same analogy to urge Mica and his fellow Republican committee members to be patient. “It took 50 years to build the interstate,” LaHood said. “We’re not going to build high speed rail overnight.”

Several Republican members of the committee questioned the viability of several components of  high-speed rail projects, which are clustered in California, the Midwest and the Northeast Corridor. They said the country would be better served by focusing on focusing on the busiest part of the line -- the Northeast Corridor -- than taking a scatter shot approach that includes projects like high-speed rail from Minneapolis to Duluth, Minn. for which there may not be much demand.

Democrats on the committee and LaHood disagreed with that sentiment, saying local leaders in those places are demanding high-speed rail. “We don’t make this stuff up,” LaHood said, waving a map of the high-speed rail corridors.

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