LaHood defends California high-speed rail plan

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GOP critics of the planned California railway have cited reports that the cost of building the line has increased from $33 billion to $98 billion to justify stopping federal money from going to the project.

"We're not going to get it fully funded as long as there's language in bills that says we can't have any money," LaHood said as he lamented a GOP amendment to the $109 billion transportation bill that was approved last year barring money from being spent on the California railway.

"As long as there's language in bills that prohibit us from funding, we're going nowhere," LaHood continued, as one of the sponsors of that amendment, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), asked whether the project would receive promised private-sector investment.

The Obama administration awarded more than $3 billion to the line from the 2009 economic stimulus package, which is more than any other state has received since Obama announced his vision for a nationwide network of railways in 2009.

LaHood argued Thursday that Congress should appropriate more money to the project instead of complaining about the lack of funds.

"If you'd be good enough to withdrawal your language in that appropriation bill ... that'd be a good first start for us," LaHood said to Denham. "We're not going to get $1 as long as there's language in appropriations bills that says there's no federal money that can be spent on California high-speed rail. That doesn't help us get any more (private) money to the project."

Denham was unconvinced, however, telling LaHood "the amendments are not meant to help you, we agree on that.

"The amendments are meant to stop this project, until we see a plan," Denham said.

Denham said he did not buy LaHood's argument that government funding for the proposed California railway would lure private investment in the project.

"Mr. LaHood, I've been hearing this story for many years now," Denham said. "I keep hearing about all these private investors ... all these steps that if we just jump through one more step, we're going to have a private investor. So until we have a fully funded project ... let's see how that makes sense."  

Other Republicans on the Transportation Committee shared Denham's skeptism, expressing doubt not just about the California rail proposal, but the Obama administration's entire railway development plan.

“I have been one of the strongest proponents in Congress of transportation and passenger rail, but in these days of trillion-dollar deficits, we have a responsibility to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is wisely invested and that we move forward responsibly with any transportation improvements,” Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said. 

“Just as you wouldn’t plan a four-lane highway where no one would drive on it, we don’t want to build high-speed rail where no one will ride it," Mica continued. "Unfortunately most of the high-speed rail funding has been spread around to projects that are not high-speed."
 
Democrats on the panel were much more charitable about the Obama administration's high-speed rail plans, however. 

"If Florida and California are still debating whether or not they want to become seconded-class states, be my guest," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said.

"There will be many other states that move forward," Norton continued. "This is a country of jurisdictions. Some will come later; all will come, and those who come early will be ahead." 

The California project that was being debated is the largest remaining project from the $8 billion the Obama administration included in the 2009 stimulus for high-speed rail development. Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin rejected money for similar projects in their states in 2010.

DOT distributed the spurned rail dollars to other states, including California.

LaHood told lawmakers on the Transportation Committee that despite the GOP rejections, Obama was still committed to building more railways in the U.S.

"Investing in rail is a priority for President Obama and this administration, and most importantly, it's a priority for the American people," he said. "Since 2009, we have received 500 applications. ... For the money that was turned back from Florida, $2.3 billion, we had $10 billion worth of requests for that money. This idea that people don't want high-speed rail ... they do. We have the statistics, but we (also) have the people that tells this." 

—This post was updated with new information at 4:12 p.m.