The U.S. Dept. of Transportation's high-speed passenger rail program sparks strong opinions, pro and con. Both sides were in full view at a Dec. 6 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on the program.
The subtitle of the hearing was "Mistakes and Lessons Learned," as if there were any doubts how the House's Republican majority sees things.
Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and other GOP members on the panel leveled criticisms--that the federal aid was spread too widely to have an impact, that DOT should concentrate instead on the Northeast Corridor, that some routes won't generate particularly high speeds, and that California has seen its cost estimate jump sharply even before breaking ground.
But LaHood--who said he had asked to appear at the hearing--gave a forceful defense.
Neither side seemed to win any converts, or policy concessions, from the other.
It's clear that the rail program is at a critical point. After receiving $10.5 billion in appropriations over the 2009-2010 period. But after Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections, they have pushed to cut domestic spending.
HSR has been a prime target for the GOP, which succeeded in rescinding $400 million of the $10.5 billion. The program also saw its funding zeroed out for fiscal 2011 and for 2012.
That's obviously discouraging news for design and construction industry firms, which only in recent months have started to see projects using the 2009 HSR money get moving.
In his prepared testimony, LaHood said $1.4 billion in HSR construction is under way, including track work in Illinois and an extension in Maine. He added that another $1.2 billon in projects is slated to start in early 2012, including upgrades to stations in New York, Michigan and Wisconsin and an Osage River bridge in Missouri.
Mica said that "we are at an impasse" regarding HSR, and added that "The failure to date, particularly on high-speed rail actually sets us, I think, further behind...."
Mica, who described himself as a "strong, committed advocate" of HSR, said that California's plan, which was awarded $3.9 billion in the federal money, "appears to be in disarray." He noted that the project's cost recently was re-estimated to $98.5 billion, from $43 billion.
Mica also called three other plans "pseudo" high-speed rail, saying their average projected speeds won't be exceptionally fast: Chicago-St. Louis (avg. 71 mph), Chicago-Detroit (64 mph) and Portland, Ore.-Vancouver, B.C. (65 mph).
"We need a success," Mica declared, and repeated his earlier call for DOT to concentrate more money on the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor, which he says offers the best change for a high-speed service.
After about 40 minutes worth of committee members' opening statements, LaHood got his turn. He gave no ground, saying, "High speed rail is coming to America. It's here."
LaHood, a Republican, who had spent six years on the transportation committee during his long tenure in the House, also said the HSR program was popular among states. He noted that states and Amtrak submitted a total of $75 billion in applications for the $10.5 billion initially available.
LaHood added, "We're in it for the long haul. We will not be dissuaded by the nay-sayers, by the critics..."
But as long as the GOP holds a majority of at least one chamber of Congress, the outlook for new funding for HSR isn't promising, at least in the near term.