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June 28, 2013

California’s high-speed rail traveling a difficult political track

California’s high-speed rail plan is heading for some “Perils of Pauline” moments on Capitol Hill.

California’s high-speed rail plan is heading for some “Perils of Pauline” moments on Capitol Hill.

This week, reinforcing past resistance, a Republican-controlled House panel put two more obstacles in the way of the state’s ambitious rail plan. For various 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-Calif., said in an interview Friday.

On Thursday, Valadao won House Appropriations Committee approval for an amendment that would, if it becomes law, slow construction of the high-speed rail project. Specifically, 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 already approved starting 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 in an interview. “This is a political move…that basically says we can’t spend the money we already have in hand.”

When fully built out by 2029 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 miles per hour. The first construction phase, using a combination of state and federal funds, is through the San Joaquin Valley.

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 also 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-Calif., 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 on Thursday. California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both support the California rail project.

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

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-Calif., 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.

This means the no-funding provision may primarily be symbolic. At the same time, though 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-Calif., “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 also 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.

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