House votes against California high speed rail


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Congressional Republicans this week are trying to drive another spike, or two, into the heart of California’s high-speed rail program.

Daring a presidential veto, GOP lawmakers are deploying a Fiscal 2015 transportation funding bill to effectively block the federal Surface Transportation Board from issuing new permits for the California project.

Hammering home the point, House Republicans on Tuesday approved an amendment by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., that blocks any money from the $52 billion bill from going to California high-speed rail.

“This is a project that is going out of control,” Denham declared during House debate. “It’s a project that has no end in sight. We’ve got to stop this train wreck.”

The Republican-controlled House passed Denham’s amendment on a largely party line 227-186 vote following a 15-minute debate.

The House actions follow the GOP policy of opposing the Obama administration’s high-speed rail efforts, and they are to some extent symbolic. California’s high-speed rail planners, who have already obtained some $3.8 billion in federal funds, do not anticipate needing additional federal dollars in the next fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The House, moreover, does not necessarily have the last word. Similar provisions included in the House’s transportation funding bill last year were quietly dropped during negotiations with the Senate.

“I think it’s unfortunate, because it continues the politicization of transportation policy,” Dan Richard, board chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said of the House provisions in an interview Tuesday.

Richard, while sighing that “we go through this every year with these guys,” also emphasized that killing the California high-speed rail program would wipe out contracts that include a number serving veterans. According to the rail authority, 71 companies working on the rail project have offices in the Central Valley; 47 of these are in the Fresno and Clovis area.

Statewide, the rail authority says 8,589 California-based employees were working on the project as of April.

“Now they’re speaking about throwing people out of jobs,” Richard said.

The House Appropriations Committee included one of the high-speed rail blockades in the 155-page bill funding transportation programs. It’s technical, but potentially significant.

The provision says the three-member Surface Transportation Board cannot “take any action” on California’s project unless the board claims “jurisdiction over the entire project” and the permit covers the project “in its entirety.”

This would raise the bar considerably, as the board has previously permitted phase-by-phase consideration rather than reviewing the entire Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route. Last month, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board formally approved the 114-mile Fresno-to-Bakersfield route.

The Surface Transportation Board has yet to act on the route.

“Our hope is to slow the project down,” said freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, adding that the House provisions “continue to put pressure on the project.”

Richard said the California project might need Surface Transportation Board action in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, depending on timing. The White House Office of Management and Budget declared that it “strongly opposes” the Surface Transportation Board provision, as part of a broader veto warning.

“The administration believes passenger rail can play an important role in addressing transportation needs and opposes any attempts to limit state and local choices to enhance passenger rail,” the White House agency stated.

The transportation bill covers a lot of other California territory, including money for the Essential Air Service subsidy serving small airports in Merced and Visalia.

The Republican-authored House bill also cuts some funding, including an infrastructure grant program that would fall to $100 million from this year’s $600 million. Past recipients of these so-called TIGER grants include the city of Fresno, which was provided $15 million to help reconstruct the downtown mall.

“The transportation bill is a flawed measure to begin with,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.

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