WASHINGTON — At a House committee hearing Thursday, an agitated U.S. Transportation Secretary tangled with a California Republican over the need to fund the controversial, partly bond-funded $68 billion bullet train initiative in that state, making clear the Obama administration remains committed to high-speed rail investment.
Testifying before an oversight hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, LaHood implored lawmakers not to give up on high-speed rail and called for the removal of a Republican-sponsored appropriations measure that banned further federal investment in California's intercity rail project.
He defended the program as recent investigations by the DOT Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office found that the federal government has been slow to spend the money it has allocated to high-speed rail.
The California project, designed to connect the Bay Area and Orange County, has become ground zero for an ongoing tussle between the White House and Republicans who are concerned about certain federal high-speed rail investments.
Between the stimulus law enacted in 2009 and later additional appropriations, the federal government has already committed more than $10 billion to high-speed rail development nationwide and over $3 billion in California. This summer, California's assembly agreed, by a single Senate vote, to move forward with spending some of the $10 billion bond funds approved by voters in 2008.
"We have a very committed assembly in California, that had to take a vote to sell the bonds" LaHood told the committee. "We're not giving up on high-speed rail. The president will include money in his budget for high-speed rail."
After committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., mentioned the refusal of the Sunshine State's governor to accept billions of federal dollars for rail development in Florida, LaHood flatly dismissed the idea that high-speed rail was an unpopular pet project of the White House.
"We have received over 500 requests for the money that was turned back from Florida," LaHood declared. "The idea that people don't want passenger rail ... they do."
In a testy exchange with Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., LaHood showed frustration with lawmakers who demand greater involvement from the private sector while restricting further federal investment.
Denham voted for the California rail bonds as a member of the state legislature, but since coming to Congress has come to regret the decision. He authored the amendment that prevents any further federal spending on the California project.
Denham told LaHood that he does not think the project could find a viable private partner, given its fluctuating cost and ridership numbers, and wouldn't support spending more federal money on it until he saw something that convinced him otherwise.
The project's price tag has fluctuated wildly, beginning at an estimated $45 billion before jumping to nearly $100 billion and then settling back at $68 billion. Denham said the wild swings seem suspicious, as do the fluctuating projections of how many riders the train would attract.
"Other than the fluctuating ridership numbers, which get made up all the time, not much seems to have changed," Denham said.
But LaHood defended the project and said Denham's ban on federal funds makes it harder to find private investors, not easier.
"That doesn't help us," a visibly upset LaHood told the congressman.
"The amendments are not meant to help you," Denham shot back.
Mica, chairing his second-to-last transportation hearing, said he is not trying to micro-manage rail investment but is hoping to shape policy in favor of spending more in the congested Northeast corridor between Washington D.C. and Boston.