By Keith Laing
The House lawmaker responsible for oversight of the nation's railways promised Wednesday to use his new position to put the brakes on a controversial high-speed railway in his state.
Denham has sought previously to deny federal funding for the proposed California high-speed railway, and he said Wednesday afternoon in an interview with The Hill that he would use his new perch to keep the up roadblock.
"I've obviously taken a very strong position about California high-speed rail and I'm going to continue do so," Denham said. "We'll have the ability to hold hearings, we'll have the rail reauthorization bill and different transportation funding measures. I don't want to see one more penny [go to the California high-speed rail] until they disclose who their private partners are."
The proposed California high-speed rail plan has become a lightning rod for conservatives in Washington and the Golden State. GOP opponents of the proposal, which would link San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major California cities, cite reports that emerged in 2011 that the cost of building the line would increase from $33 billion to $98 billion.
The project has received more than $3 billion from the Obama administration. That's more than any other state included in the president’s vision of a nationwide network of railways that would connect 80 percent of Americans.
The state of California has approved an additional $2.6 billion in state funding for the proposed railway, which would run 220-miles-per-hour trains on an 800-mile route if it is ultimately constructed.
Most of the other large projects in Obama's proposal were shuttered when Republican governors in states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin rejected money from the administration. California has proceeded with its rail plans, however, and the state has been awarded some of the rejected money from other states.
Despite his state's Democratic leaders' enthusiasm, Denham sponsored an amendment to the $105 billion transportation bill that was approved by Congress last year to bar any of the money from going to the proposed California railway.
He told The Hill on Wednesday that he would seek to continue the ban in future transportation authorizations.
"I don't believe gas tax money should be going to rail," Denham said.
The California lawmaker, who was elected in 2010, said he would oppose including any money in the forthcoming Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) for the California railway proposal either. The PRIIA bill, which contains funding for Amtrak and other intercity rail program, is the legislation that emboldened President Obama to include $8 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package for new high-speed rail construction.
The PRIIA bill is scheduled to expire this year, making it one of the top priorities that will await Denham on the Transportation Committee's rail subcommittee.
Denham said Wednesday that he would believed it would be possible to pass a new rail funding bill this year
"I'm looking forward to bringing all the parties together to move this year and finding a solution that works for the taxpayer," he said.
Transportation industry officials may not see Denham's appointment as act of goodwill on rail funding, however.
"We need a transportation network in this country that is interwoven and properly funded from our waterways to our railways to our runways to our highways. ... We can’t be an economic power if we’re defined by slow passenger trains, eroding bridges, over-crowded transit systems, aging aviation technology, congested highways and ports that are choking the economy," AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind wrote Wednesday in blog post defending federal funding for high-speed rail.
Wytkind did not specifically mention Denham's appointment to the House subcommittee, but he strongly disagreed with the California Republican's arguments about the necessity of federal funding for the operation of railways.
"America is littered with examples of botched privatization and contracting schemes that left us with reduced wages, weakened health care and pension protections, and eroded or eliminated bargaining rights," Wytkind wrote. "This labor model ensures our [high speed rail] goals will fail miserably."
House Transportation Committee Bill Shuster (R-Calif.) has made comments similar to Denham's about the possibility of finding "common ground" with supporters on a new rail funding bill. The Pennsylvania lawmaker has sought to recalibrate his message on rail funding after contentious fights in the last Congress over a GOP effort to eliminate federal subsidies for Amtrak.
Shuster made no mention of California's high-speed rail plan when he announced Denham's appointment, saying only that the vocal critic of the proposal "has proven himself to be a strong leader on transportation issues."
"I look forward to working with him closely as we tackle our nation’s pressing transportation challenges,” Shuster said in a statement. “His leadership will aid the Committee in pursuing an aggressive agenda focused on strengthening and improving America’s rail transportation system and increasing efficiency and accountability.”
Shuster has said that he is in favor of high-speed rail in densely populated areas like the Northeast U.S., but he has criticized Obama for supporting the development of new railways in other parts of the country that are more car-dependent, like California.