It took about two minutes into a House transportation subcommittee hearing Wednesday before the California high-speed rail project was singled out for criticism.
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, chair of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, opened the hearing on intercity rail by emphasizing the importance of balancing federal policies and spending with realistic consumer demand and the best use of taxpayer dollars.
“There is no better example of completely ignoring these important considerations than the disastrous California High-Speed Rail project,” Nehls said. “The project has been plagued by a failure to account for actual costs and work associated with obtaining land to build the track, eminent domain issues, environmental concerns, permitting red tape, and whether low consumer demand will require permanent and costly government subsidies to operate the line.
It was the latest example of the California HSR project coming under GOP fire during a Congressional hearing, and comes as the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which oversees the project, has asked for a $2.8 billion Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant. A second proposed high-speed project between Los Angeles and Las Vegas run by privately owned Brightline West has asked for a $3.75 billion grant from the same program. The White House is expected to announce the winners before the end of the year.
The California bullet train is one of a handful of fledgling high-speed train projects in the U.S., and the only one that is publicly-owned. Its price tag in recent years has climbed to $128 billion for the full 500-mile line, which promises a ride time of around three hours between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The state is set to ask for at least $8 billion in federal funds over the next few years to fund a 171-mile starter segment connecting Merced to Bakersfield.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., called the $9.9 billion bond issue that funded the project in 2008 “not legal or accurate” given the project’s subsequent changes, delays and cost overruns.
“Can voters ask for a refund?” LaMalfa asked. “It’s just an inexcusable waste of money for people … especially with so many other infrastructure projects we could be doing,” he said. “At what point do we cut this burning boat loose?”
One of the few defenders of the project, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said the state would need to build 4,000 lane miles of highway and 91 new airport gates to accommodate estimated travel demand in California by 2050 if the HSR project is not built.
“We agree the project has been mismanaged … and we agree we should do better than California, but you have to look at the alternatives,” Moulton said.