Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood confronted congressional Republicans for their objections to President Obama's high-speed rail initiatives Tuesday, telling them they should get on board with the president's rail push because their criticisms have been misguided.
“We are right at the point where we were when they started the interstate system,” an animated LaHood told lawmakers, drawing a parallel to the development of the federal highway system. “We are not going to be dissuaded by critics."
Obama’s rail initiative has become a lightning rod for conservatives who think it is a waste of money to invest in high-speed train projects across the car-crazy U.S., particularly when the nation is focused on reducing its deficit. Tuesday, LaHood won few converts.
But LaHood, a former Republican member of Congress plucked from retirement by Obama, conceded no mistakes in his testimony.
"Thirty-two states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak are hard at work on over 150 projects, many of which are among the most substantial capital improvements to the nation’s rail network in decades," he said. "Americans will soon begin seeing significant travel time, frequency, and reliability improvements, in addition to upgraded stations and equipment.
"We are only at the beginning of this multi-generational process — the simple fact is that the transportation challenges that are driving increased demand for rail are not going away."
Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who recently pronounced the Obama administration plan to build a nationwide network of railways dead after a House vote to zero out funding for rail in next year's budget, stuck to that position on Tuesday.
“I don't believe we're going to be able to have high-speed rail across this country because we can't afford it and the American people aren't clamoring for it,” Shuster said.
Shuster and other Republican House members have suggested that Obama erred by not focusing his high-speed rail effort on the populous Northeast region of the country, where rail is most popular.
But LaHood refused to agree that high-speed rail could only be successful there.
“We believe there are other places in America,” he said. “There are other places where people want to have a train to ride. We are not going to invest every dollar in one part of the country. That's not fair.”
Republicans have criticized a high-speed rail proposal in California, which has received more money from the Obama administration than another other project, for everything from its cost to the planed route of the railway.
LaHood pushed back at those arguments on Tuesday.
“If you don't like the places a high-speed rail is proposed to go in California, you need to talk to the people in California who've been working on high-speed rail for 15 years," he said. “This is not a result of President Obama or Secretary LaHood drawing [routes] on a map.”
The Obama administration has offered California more than $3 billion for a proposed high-speed railway that would link San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major cities.
A Republican member of the panel from the state, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), noted recent reports show the estimates on the cost of building the train have skyrocketed to $98 billion.
“I didn't come here to debate you,” Denham told LaHood. “I came here to get the facts.”
Democrats on the panel Tuesday backed LaHood, arguing that it did not make sense to concentrate high-speed rail in the Northeast.
“We spent 70 years ignoring and destroying the rail system in the U.S.,” DeFazio said. “We're only in the second year of trying to rebuild it.”
LaHood agreed, saying he asked to speak to the panel Tuesday “because high-speed rail is a signature initiative of this administration.”
“You may not believe it, but the people want this,” he told the committee.
LaHood, a former GOP congressman from Illinois, appeared to convince few of his former colleagues.
“The federal government is not going to be the job creator,” Shuster said in his closing remarks. “It’s going to be the private sector.”
—This story was updated at 2:18 p.m.