Congress Fails Again on High Speed Rail
The US House of Representatives held a hearing today, at Jeff Denham’s request, into the California High Speed Rail project. I caught some of the testimony and read some transcripts of the remarks from both witnesses and members of Congress, and I have to agree with the Fresno Bee’s Michael Doyle in his conclusion that there was plenty of posturing at the hearing:
California’s ambitious high-speed rail program reignited high-level skirmishing Thursday that crosses party lines and shows every sign of extending into the foreseeable future.
Taken together, the sometimes combative rhetoric at a House committee hearing seemed to change no minds but did underscore the political barriers complicating California’s high-speed rail program now estimated to cost $98.5 billion over 20 years.
Congressional hearings usually aren’t much more than this anyway. They’re a chance for one side, in this case Republicans, to make their claims, in this case that high speed rail is a bad idea. Their arguments were the familiar and false ones: nobody will ride the trains, private sector won’t invest, the whole thing is a waste. As Doyle reported, it was so familiar that few representatives even sat through the whole thing:
Denham chaired much of the four-hour hearing Thursday, which high-speed rail supporter Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, denounced in advance as a “dog and pony show.” The arguments were frequently fervent, but missed by most of the ostensible audience. For much of the hearing, only three or four representatives from the 59-member committee were in attendance.
Another criticism, voiced by some Democrats as well as Republicans, was with the choice of where to begin construction:
Some of the congressional resistance seen Thursday appears to be partisan, as Republicans find a way to oppose an Obama administration priority. Some skepticism seems more rooted in regional competition for funding, and this is not just from Northeastern lawmakers who want to steer rail funds their way. One Southern California Democrat, Rep. Janet Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, worried Thursday that high-speed rail could “take away from local projects” that might improve much-needed mass transit in her district.
This is no surprise. The number of people in state and federal politics who are actually deeply invested in connecting SF, the Central Valley and LA by fast rail is not as high as it should be, especially when construction begins in the Valley. It’s a lot easier for parochial members of Congress in the Bay Area and Southern California to argue for spending money in their own backyards, even though the entire point of HSR is to connect those two metro areas. Building in the Valley IS still cheaper than building in the Bay Area and the LA area. By starting in the Valley, where the missing link is located, you can generate the momentum needed to get the rest of the funding you need to get to the coastal metro areas.
And that ultimately is what makes this whole exercise so ridiculous. Congress has all the power to solve these problems by simply providing more money to get the system built more quickly and give the representatives from the coastal metro areas the jobs and spending they want while actually doing the right thing and building the train. They’re like a person standing beside a car in the driveway saying “I can’t get to work!” while holding the keys in their hand.
Republicans are simply looking for excuses to kill a project they don’t like, and hoped a Congressional hearing would help them maintain their drumbeat. This issue won’t be decided in a hearing, however. It will be decided at the ballot box in November 2012. If Democrats retake Congress and hold the White House, then it’s likely that more funding will be approved to help get this done, over time. Crucially, that would include enough funding to get the Initial Operating Segment done. Democrats on the committee were mostly concerned about where the money goes, not about whether HSR is worth funding.
The case for HSR remains solid. People will ride trains, especially since the price of gas keeps rising, and as we face a jobs crisis and a climate crisis, investing in green infrastructure is more essential than ever. Voters understood that in 2008 and as each year passes that case only gets stronger. Right now, in 2011, those HSR deniers, whether they are Congressional Republicans or Peninsula NIMBYs, are riding high because American culture and politics currently prizes defending a failed status quo over changing to a better future. That won’t last forever and neither will the Republican majority in Congress.
I’m sure we’ll see more grandstanding hearings. But the key is for HSR supporters to remain focused on the reasons why HSR is a good idea, not get discouraged, and keep pushing forward. If things like this are going to be possible in America, it will require strong and persistent advocacy. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but those are the times in which we’re fated to live.