DC: Obama, Congress Collide on Trains

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Congress and the Obama administration are headed for another head-on collision over high-speed rail.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated President Barack Obama's strong support even as a top Republican in the House of Representatives naysayed. Neither side appears ready to steer clear this election year, particularly in differences concerning California.

"We're committed to this; there's no going back," LaHood said at a high-speed rail conference. "We need to keep the momentum going."

But congressional Republicans, even some who've backed high-speed rail in the past, are resisting with equal vehemence.

"If the president thinks his proposal is going to [fly] for high-speed rail, he's pipe-dreaming," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the same rail conference.

Obama has proposed spending $2.7 billion on high-speed rail in fiscal year 2013, atop more than $8 billion previously provided under a stimulus bill that passed while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

In part because other states, including Florida and Wisconsin, turned down federal funding, California alone has picked up $3.6 billion for its high-speed rail plan.

The state's initial plan calls for constructing a 220 mph line between Bakersfield and Merced.

Citing a recent trip to California, where he met with farm, business and political leaders, LaHood said the state was now "well positioned" to proceed. LaHood specifically praised the work of Dan Richard, the newly appointed chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority under the administration of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

"He's mending a lot of fences that were broken over the past few years, and he's making progress," LaHood said.

California officials now say construction probably won't begin until at least early next year, instead of the originally scheduled start time of September.

Utterly unconvinced of the project's merits, and skeptical of a total project cost now pegged at $98 billion, congressional Republicans have taken special aim at the California proposal.

"It doesn't serve a populated area, and it's mired in controversy, delay and overruns in the cost," said Mica, who's a proponent of high-speed rail in the Northeast.

Mica is now struggling to write a new multiyear transportation bill, whose fate remains uncertain because of questions over funding and other provisions. He suggested Wednesday that another extension of the current funding program might be needed if lawmakers fail once more to agree on money and other issues before the current transportation-bill extension ends March 31.

Underscoring the political problems facing high-speed rail, Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from Turlock, Calif., won GOP approval for an amendment that bans the broader transportation bill from devoting any funds to California's high-speed rail project.

In a similar vein, Rep. David Price, D-N.C., recalled that he'd offered a $1 billion amendment on another funding bill to assist high-speed rail. He lost in the powerful House Appropriations Committee, on a party-line vote. A drastically scaled-back amendment, offering $1 million merely as a placeholder, likewise failed.

"There are adverse forces out there," said Price, who's a member of the Congressional Bicameral High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus. "There are adverse trends."

The caucus was started last year, with only Democrats as founding members.

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