Could California’s High-Speed Rail Dream Be Derailed As Well?

Three weeks after the election of new Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin and a Republican U.S. House of Representatives, the debate continues about the future of high-speed rail in the United States. Recent days have seen a series of pro-rail rallies in Wisconsin, where Governor-elect Scott Walker has promised to shut down a planned rail line between Milwaukee and Madison. But while it may be too early to completely write off the prospects for Midwest passenger rail, it may also be too soon to assume that high-speed rail will move forward in other parts of the country. Rail supporters who were breathing a sigh of relief about the election of rail-supporter Jerry Brown as Governor in California may have new cause for concern. The top Republican on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, California Congressman Jerry Lewis, introduced legislation last week that would rescind $2 billion in stimulus funds promised to the state to kick start a $43 billion high-speed rail project that would link San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Lewis is leading a coalition of 27 House Republicans in introducing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Rescission Act, which would return the final $12 billion in unspent and uncommitted stimulus funds to the U.S. Treasury to help fight the $1.3 trillion deficit. As the San Jose Mercury News reported Monday, California has spent nearly $200 million on planning the rail line and is saving the remaining $2 billion for construction. The stimulus funds would also be used to unlock another $2 billion in matching state bond money. But without those funds, the state would not have enough cash available to start construction on the rail line and no timeline to do so.

In a Nov. 15 letter to President Obama, Lewis wrote that returning the stimulus funds “represents a first down payment in GOP efforts to eliminate wasteful government spending and reduce the deficit.”

Obama administration officials defended the rail project. Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said Lewis’ bill would “negatively impact our economic strength both now and in the future.”

While a Democratic Senate and President Obama’s veto pen make it unlikely Lewis’ bill would succeed, all options could be on the table next year as Congress looks at what to cut and how to start reducing the deficit.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, supporters of the Milwaukee-Madison rail corridor held rallies Saturday in seven cities around the state. About 200 people showed up in Madison, near the spot where a rail station would be built. USA Today reports this week on the rallies as well as the effort by Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich to shut down a proposed Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati high-speed rail line and the concern by Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott that a proposed Tampa-Orlando rail line could become a burden to taxpayers.

While proponents tout the benefits of high-speed rail in improving the environment, creating jobs and closing the gap with other countries that already have extensive rail networks, opponents knock U.S. high-speed rail plans not only for the high cost but for scattering the investment around the country.

The presumptive incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Rep. John Mica has said he will review how rail projects were chosen for funding.

“(Mica) wants to see successful high-speed rail in the United States,” committee spokesman Justin Harclerode told USA Today. “(Mica) has felt all along that we should really focus on high-speed rail efforts in (a) very limited number of regions, and do it in the places that can offer the most transportation benefit to that region and to the country. Essentially, do it in places where it makes sense.”

That might mean shifting those Midwest rail funds to projects on the East and West Coasts.

Even some Democrats, though, believe that might not be such a bad thing and could actually help ensure the overall success of high-speed rail in the United States.

The Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist group affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, weighs in on the issue in an article today.

“By vowing to kill planned passenger train lines in their states, the newly elected Midwest Republicans have potentially freed $1.2 billion in federal rail money that can be used to build “true” high-speed routes elsewhere,” writes Mark Reutter on the group’s website. “The windfall represents more than the $1 billion that the White House has requested from Congress in next year’s budget. It gives the administration breathing space to keep the program going even if the Republican-led House blocks rail appropriations in 2011.”

The institute shares the belief of many Republicans that spreading out federal high-speed rail funds across too many projects is a mistake and that high-speed rail can only succeed if it is actually high speed. In his campaign for governor, Kasich campaigned against the Ohio rail line by emphasizing that trains would only reach speeds of 39 miles per hour in some cases. Trains on California’s proposed high-speed rail line are expected to reach speeds over 200 miles per hour.

“Studies indicate that somewhat-faster service will not create the transformational transportation that will get Americans out of their cars and jumpstart regional economies,” Reutter writes, citing a June study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors comparing high-speed rail and conventional rail.

The national high-speed rail plan unveiled last week by the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association envisions a 17,000-mile network of rail service that would criss-cross the United States by 2030 with trains traveling up to 220 mph.

What happens in the next few months as priorities are reassessed both in Washington and around the country could determine if that plan comes to fruition or if the high-speed rail dream is deferred or denied. It has all the makings of a slow motion train wreck.