WASHINGTON - Big municipal bond commitments will need to be a crucial piece of the funding puzzle for a national high-speed rail network despite resistance from debt-reduction advocates in both national and state governments, the U.S. secretary of transportation told proponents of bullet trains Wednesday.
Ray LaHood made the remark at the 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail in Philadelphia.
When asked about how to make palatable huge debt commitments like California's $4.7 billion issue approved last week by the state Senate amid pressures to cut spending, LaHood said state governments can't afford to lose sight of long-term priorities.
"Every state is reorganizing in many different ways," the transportation chief said. "Set aside some money for debt, but we have to have priorities, and high-speed rail should be one of them."
LaHood said the California Legislature "showed courage" in voting to authorize the voter-approved bonds, which the state Senate did by a razor-thin one-vote margin on July 6. That vote allowed the fast-rail project - which aims to be the first link in a system the Obama administration envisions connecting 80% of the country in the coming decades - to become eligible for $3.3 billion in federal funds. Opponents of the bond issue worry how constituents will react to such a huge debt commitment as California's budget is cut by $8 billion and taxes are raised to close a nearly $16 billion deficit.
LaHood said the entire nation could take a cue from California's determination to move ahead with the project, which has been much maligned by Capitol Hill Republicans like House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Issa announced in April that his committee would probe possible conflicts of interest and "weak oversight" of the project.
"The political will comes from California," said LaHood, who opened the three-day international rail conference with a speech vowing not to let the vision of a fast train network be derailed by naysayers.
"We feel blessed that we have partners all over the country," he said, noting that GOP Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan accepted a federal high-speed rail grant turned away by Florida.
LaHood and other participants in the roundtable, including American Public Transportation Association president Michael Melaniphy, agreed that projects will continue to draw on federal and private investment as well.
"High-speed rail is a proven technology," he said. "There is no question the United States needs to move forward on high-speed rail."