By Keith Laing
The House lawmaker responsible for oversight of the nation's railways is preparing to file a bill to block federal money from going to a proposed high-speed railway in California until the state provides matching funds.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) announced the planned legislation during a hearing about the “challenges” he said were facing California’s controversial railway on Wednesday.
“I’m prepared to introduce a bill that will require [the Federal Railroad Administration] to suspend all payments until California High-Speed Rail Authority has the matching funds available and is not hindered in coming forward with that and spending that money,” Denham said. “I will be introducing that bill before we leave on our district work period next week.”
The project, which would link San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major California cities, has come under fire in recent years since reports emerged in 2011 that the cost of building the line would increase from $33 billion to $98 billion.
The Obama administration is scheduled to begin making payments to California to help with construction of the rail line in April, but the payments require the state to put up matching money.
Denham has been publicly opposed to the California railway before, and he said on Tuesday that his home state did not have the money to match federal payments.
“California does not have the funding in hand to begin supplying the state match for the Recovery Act grant, and the Federal Railroad Administration’s grant agreement with California requires the first state match payment on April 1st,” he said.
“Under FRA’s grant agreement, the Administration has the ability – today, right now – to suspend reimbursements until the High Speed Rail Authority presents a viable plan to identify a new source of the required state match,” Denham continued. “Given so much uncertainty around this project, why wouldn’t FRA take the prudent step to hold off spending more taxpayer dollars until they are satisfied that California has remedied these legal setbacks?”
The California high-speed rail is the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s vision of a nationwide network of railways the president said in his first term would eventually rival the interstate highway system.
The administration has drastically scaled back its vision since Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin rejected money for railways that was included in the 2009 economic stimulus, leaving the California project as the most viable remaining project with the possibility of coming to fruition.
Denham accused the Obama administration of ignoring problems with California’s portion of the funding that is necessary to build the rail line because it wants to have a success story.
“In November the project received two new setbacks in the California state court system,” he said. “First, the courts found that the California High Speed Rail funding plan did not comply with the Proposition 1A requirements that funding sources be identified for the $26 billion needed to build the entire 300 miles of rail between Merced and San Fernando, and that all environmental clearances be completed for the entire initial operating segment.
“Second, the courts found that the California High Speed Rail Authority did not provide sufficient justification for the issuance of $8.6 billion in Proposition 1A bond funds,” Denham continued. “Those bond funds were to be the source of the state match for the $2.55 billion the Federal Government has provided to this project through the Recovery Act."
Denham said the FRA was pressing ahead despite the red flags.
“I have many concerns about how the Federal Railroad Administration is reacting to these recent setbacks, and what it is doing to protect billions of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “After the rulings, I sent a letter to FRA on December 12th, with a number of common sense, simple questions. The Administration’s sent back a response that basically states, 'Everything is fine. Nothing has changed.' They did not answer one question and staff has basically refused to provide the data that we feel is necessary to conduct proper oversight.”
Democrats on the panel defended the California railway, arguing that it is a worthwhile investment.
“I won’t be signing onto your bill,” Rep. Corrine Brown (R-Fla.) said after noting that her state’s governor, Rick Scott (R) turned down $2.4 billion that was redirected to other state’s high-speed railways like California.
Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) agreed.
“We’re behind the rest of the world,” Hahn said. “China’s built more than 6,000 miles of high-speed rail tracks since 2008….Japan and France have also made substantial investments. In California, our transportation system is at its limit. Our highways are jammed…we need another option, and I think that’s what high-speed rail is for California.”
Hahn also chastised Republicans on the House Transportation Committee who were from California for opposing federal investments in their state.
“I hope we as Californians can come together and talk about the problems and talk about the solutions,” she said. “I think we ought to be fighting together to bring federal resources to California, not to oppose federal resources.”