WASHINGTON – In California, futuristic high-speed rail sounds like it is closer than two ties on a track bed: “We’re on the verge of breaking ground,” said an enthusiastic Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, indicating work could begin sometime next month.
In Sacramento, heady attributes are touted by powerbrokers from Gov. Jerry Brown on down – environmentally friendly travel, speedy service and enough funding secured to build the first section, with $2.7 billion from Proposition 1A bonds and $3.3 billion from the federal government, mostly stimulus money.
Hyperloop vs. high-speed rail
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk on Monday announced his “Hyperloop” transit idea, which would move travelers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes and cost less than one-tenth of what California’s high-speed rail project is expected to cost.
The hitch? He’s not interested in building it.
Musk’s plan includes capsules that would move through tubes at 700 mph by magnetic attraction.
But in Washington, it’s a much different story. Congress is showing little interest in Golden State high-speed rail, and certain members vigorously oppose California’s plan – and are in a position to thwart it.
“Until I see a viable business plan for high-speed rail in California that is fiscally sound and supported by private dollars, I will continue to hold the rail authority accountable to the voters and ensure no additional federal tax dollars go to this project,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, said via email. Denham chairs the rail subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Denham went even further. He added language this summer to the annual House transportation funding bill that would ban the Department of Transportation from spending money on the California project.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, added an amendment to the bill that would require the federal Surface Transportation Board to approve the entire project before construction could begin, rather than by individual sections, as happens now. The board has approved the initial 29-mile phase from Merced to Fresno, but not the 101-mile section from Fresno to Bakersfield.
If Valadao’s amendment were to become law, rail construction could be delayed for years as environmental impact studies, approvals and financial packaging are executed on all portions of the plan.
Valadao said his constituents are concerned because they don’t know yet whether the land where they live or work would be affected by the rail project, which has not specified its exact route. “(Residents) don’t know if they’re in the line of sight,” he said. The rail authority is “rushing to build this thing.”
Richard defended the current business plan, denounced both Denham’s and Valadao’s measures as bad policy, and said, “It’s time for people to get behind this.”
The proposed Senate and House transportation funding bills highlight the difficulty California will face as it pursues federal funds for the $68 billion-plus project – a project that the business plan says needs as much as $42 billion in federal funding over the next 15 years.
The rail authority says it needs $2.2 billion from the federal government in 2015, and more each year after that. In contrast, the House transportation bill eliminates all funding for high-speed rail for the fiscal year ending Oct. 31, 2014, and prospects for subsequent years are uncertain.
The House and Senate left for August recess without passing their transportation funding bills. When they return, these bills may become part of the larger budget debate. The Democratic-controlled Senate could successfully object to the Denham and Valadao proposals in the House funding bill. Even if it does, the upper chamber proposes only $100 million nationwide for high-speed rail projects in fiscal 2014, far less than what the rail authority predicts it will need.
Adrian Moore, a vice president at the libertarian Reason Foundation, co-authored an April report that detailed flaws in the rail authority’s business plan and said that funding questions could derail the whole project.
There are some fallback plans. The rail authority says that any short-term shortfalls can be covered by money raised by California’s cap-and-trade auctions, related to controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, is one of the project’s biggest supporters in Congress. Costa is co-chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Caucus and helped write the legislation creating the rail authority when he served in the state Senate.
Costa’s spokeswoman, Jessica Kahanek, said the Senate will continue to block Denham’s efforts to ban funds for the project.
Daniel Krause, president of the advocacy group Californians for High Speed Rail, said he thought cap-and-trade money and other state funding would be able to pay for construction even further, to Palmdale in northern Los Angeles County.
Krause added that he holds out hope that the composition of Congress will change, bringing more rail supporters.