Obama pushes ahead with high speed rail plan

Undaunted by the looming fiscal crisis, the Obama administration said Thursday that it plans to forge ahead with its signature transportation project, investing billions of dollars in a long-term effort to build a high-speed rail network.

“We’re not giving up on high-speed rail,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified before a congressional committee. “The president will include funding in his budget. I think we’ll get there with public money, but in the absence of that we’ll get there with private money.”

LaHood’s testimony was welcomed by a majority of members who attended the House Transportation Committee hearing, including a number of Republicans who have expressed varying degrees of skepticism about high-speed rail in the past.

Rep. John L. Mica (R.-Fla.), who will step down as committee chair next month, cautioned that money is tight.

“I have been one of the strongest proponents in Congress of transportation and passenger rail, but in these days of trillion-dollar deficits, we have a responsibility to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is wisely invested and that we move forward responsibly with any transportation improvements,” Mica said.

GOP support fell short of unanimous, however, with two California Republicans whose districts would be criss-crossed with the first proposed line speaking out against it.

“Maybe it’s time to cut our losses and pay down our debt,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy told the committee. “I have real doubts about the viability and the cost. Just because we’ve [already] invested money doesn’t mean we have to invest more.”

Rep. Jeff Denham, who in June pushed through the House legislation to ban federal spending on high-speed rail in California, questioned the price tag for the concept, in his state and nationwide.

“It would be a fun thing to have,” he said, “but can we afford something that would be a fun thing?”

The Obama administration launched the high-speed rail program using about $8 billion in economic stimulus funding. The first project — a $68 billion link between San Francisco and Los Angeles — has yet to break ground. It is projected to take 15 years to complete the 520-mile line.

More than 150 proposals related to the creation of a high-speed rail system have been funded, most of them to link major population areas on the two coasts and in the Midwest.

Concern over whether their states would be left holding the bag if federal funding dried up, Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin rejected federal funding for high-speed rail plans for their states last year.

Bringing that service to the Northeast expeditiously was supported Thursday by two Washington area Democrats — Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) and Rep. Donna Edwards (Md.) — who said the administration’s long-term goals would benefit if the public saw more immediate progress.

Norton suggested launching a pilot program to garner public support.

“I’m not convinced that we know how to do it because we haven’t done it,” Norton said. “There will be huge criticism of the administration for having nothing to show for its efforts in five years.”

“We need to get started,” Edwards said. “I know when the interstates were being built there were areas that didn’t want them. Who doesn’t want a highway now?”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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