The Obama administration's high-speed passenger rail program was launched with about $10 billion, starting in 2009, but it hasn't received any new funds from Congress since 2010. Nevertheless, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood remains a staunch defender of the plan.
House Republicans have been fighting the rail program since its early days. Those differences flared up again when LaHood testified at a Dec. 6 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.
LaHood told the committee, "The next generation in transportation is high-speed rail." He declared, "We are not going to be dissuaded by the detractors. We're going to have high-speed rail in America. We're on our way."
LaHood also said Obama would request further funds for high-speed passenger rail in his next budget proposal, due to go to Congress in February. Obama proposed $47 billion for rail in this 2012 budget, but Congress rejected that part of his request.
From a construction point of view, a substantial amount of work is under way, funded by the money approved in 2009-2010. LaHood said projects totaling $1.7 billion are complete or under way in 17 states and another $1.5 billion in work will get going in the next six months.
Republicans have a different point of view. In his next-to-last hearing as committee chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said he's a supporter of passenger rail. But he also said that about 7% of the Obama program's $10 billion actually has been spent so far and Mica added that he was "greatly concerned about the whole direction of this effort."
Mica also has advocated focusing more on the Northeast Corridor. LaHood said about $3 billion of the $10 billion has gone to the Corridor. Mica said Amtrak has a long-term plan for the corridor, estimated to cost $30 billion over 30 years. He said, "I think it can be done in a third of the time and probably a third of the money" if private funds can be drawn in.
The liveliest, and loudest, exchange during the hearing came when LaHood squared off against committee member Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who successfully added an amendment to the House-passed 2013 transportation appropriations bill that blocks funding for the passenger rail program.
The focus of their debate was the $3.9 billion U.S. DOT has awarded to Calilfornia's ambitious plan to link its major cities via high-speed trains. In 2011, the state's high-speed rail authority issued a draft plan that pegged the overall cost at $98 billion. But a more recent plan, developed by the new leaders of the California authority brought the price tag down to $68 billion.
In prepared testimony for the hearing, Susan Fleming, the Government Accountability
Office's director of physical infrastructure issues, said the California rail plan's chief challenge is "obtaining project funding beyond the first 130-mile construction segment." She noted that the state has $11.5 billion so far from the state and U.S. DOT but needs nearly $57 billion more.
Denham's Central Valley district includes part of the California plan's initial segment.
He said forcefully that he wanted to see a solid business plan from the state authority and evidence that private investors would come in to help fund the project. He added that at various steps along the way, California rail supporters kept urging lawmakers to grant approvals, promising that those approvals would spark the private dollars.
He said "a new shiny train...would be fun to have." But he added, "You have to ask yourself: Can we afford to have something fun, can we afford to have a luxury right now and can we afford to do it with no plan?"
LaHood, referring to Denham's appropriations amendment, said, "I would hope that we could find members of Congress that would not prohibit the federal government from funding high-speed rail projects—that's a good first start."
LaHood added, "Lookit, as long as there's language in a bill that prohibits us from funding, we're going nowhere."