Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
More Congressional Outrage on High-Speed Rail
Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 03:25 PM
The gulf between the worldviews of supporters and opponents of high-speed rail was on full display today as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled federal officials for the second time in two weeks on the merits of the California high speed rail program.
To opponents, California's high-speed rail is a costly boondoggle that will serve no one but farmers. To supporters, it's the only way to get ready for an expected population boom and lay the tracks for a more prosperous future.
"The entire high-speed rail program has been a bait and switch operation," said T&I Chair John Mica (R-FL) -- repeating his argument (refuted by federal officials) that none of the programs would deliver trains close to 220 mph.
"The entire California program is imploding," Mica added.
But Rep. Corrine Brown (D-also FL) was ready with a strong retort: "Here we go again. The Republicans didn’t vote for high speed rail funding, they cut future funding -- yet we’re holding our second full committee hearing on the subject in two weeks. We’re ending a year of work and still there’s no surface transportation bill, no FAA bill, no water resources bill."
"This committee is fiddling while the United States transportation infrastructure is burning," Brown added. "If the current leadership of this committee" had been in charge when the interstate highway system was proposed, "we would be a third world country."
But nevertheless, Republicans on the committee expressed disgust that the first portion of the rail would be build in a "cow patch," in central California that won't be connected to either the high-population areas of San Francisco or Los Angeles, that it is now projected to cost more than twice what was originally discussed, and that ridership may not meet projections.
"It's like saying I didn't like dial up internet, so I'm not going to like broadband," scoffed Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, at the concept that current passenger rail ridership could predict high speed rail ridership.
"The freeway is 23 lanes wide in Orange County," lamented Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). "You can see it from the moon. We need some alternatives."
But opponents had the most airtime, as a sharp exchange between freshman Maryland Republican Andy Harris and Administrator Szabo illustrated.
Harris, literally looking down at Szabo, repeatedly peppered him with questions, and often interrupted his answers. "You're asking the people in the first congressional district of Maryland to pay for this," Harris said.
"There's a value in it to the people of the nation, " Szabo began. "Look at delays at San Francisco and Los Angeles aiports --"
But Szabo got no further as Harris spoke over him. "The people in my district don't go to San Francisco or Los Angeles."
Szabo tried again. "It affects the timing --" before being cut off again.
Szabo also tried to explain why the first section is in the Central Valley (it's because that part is ready to go, and funding -- under the stimulus bill -- must be spent sooner rather than later) rather than in the San Francisco or L.A. areas but got lost in bureaocratese. "This comes down to congressional mandates under PRIA and ARRA, the ability to shift the dollars is not there, it is not there."
Asked about the hearings while he was holding a separate conference call on TIGER grants, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who was on the hot seat himself last week, said:
"Well, given the fact that I was in Philadelphia and now I’m in Cincinnati I have no idea what took place. I can tell you that as a result of the hearing that I went to, which was about 10 days ago before the Transportation Committee, I made a very strong case to the committee and to the Congress."
He continued: "High-speed rail will continue to be a priority for President Obama’s administration. The President and the Vice President have a very, very big broad view that high-speed rail is what the American people want, people in the states that where we’ve funded, in California and Illinois and along the Northeast Corridor, have been working on high-speed rail for at least a decade or more. Certainly in California they’ve been working on it for 15 years. And we are not going to be dissuaded by a few detractors who are too short-sighted to see the value of high-speed rail. We’ve made more than $10 billion worth of investments, this is the president’s vision, high-speed rail is coming to America, it’s what the American people want, and we will continue to press ahead with it."