Throwing yet another major barrier in the path of California's high-speed rail hopes, Congress on Thursday voted to eliminate all bullet train funding for the second straight year.
President Barack Obama had proposed $53 billion for U.S. high-speed trains over the next six years, including $8 billion this year, but was thwarted by fiscally-conservative members of the House and Senate, who had previously chosen not to include any funds for this year. Thursday, they did it again, scrapping all grants for next year, saying it wouldn't be the wisest way to spend money as they're trying to shave the massive federal debt.
California, which is the only state close to building a high-speed rail line, is still relying on the federal government to pay for more than half of its $99 billion bullet train program, which would link San Francisco and Anaheim as soon as 2034. Analysts and critics doubt the federal grants will ever materialize, but supporters insist Congress will turn on the funding spigot one day.
Without additional federal funding sometime in the next several years, state planners say they will abandon the plan altogether despite spending $6 billion in tax funds to build a stretch of track in the Central Valley because the line would be too short to start service. They need more than $20 billion in additional funds to extend the line to either San Jose or San Fernando Valley before bullet trains can start running. Yet construction on the
Rachel Wall, a spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said "the plan assumes federal funding in the long term but not the near term."
"The project isn't dependent on 2012 federal funding," Wall said, saying they won't really need it until 2014.
Back in Washington, Republican lawmakers are claiming credit for killing the program. But billions of dollars still in the pipeline will ensure work will continue on some projects. And it's still possible money from another transportation grant program can be steered to high-speed trains.
After Obama's funding request, House and Senate bargainers this week agreed to a broad spending bill that eliminates any funding specifically for high-speed trains. The House approved that legislation Thursday 298-121 and the Senate followed suit 70-30, sending the measure to the White House.
Republicans have made it clear since taking control of the House last year that they intended to eliminate the program, which they say is too costly.
The bill marks "an end to the president's misguided high-speed rail program, but it is not the end of American high-speed rail," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's railroad subcommittee.
Shuster and the Transportation Committee's chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., say the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. is in the Northeast rail corridor, which connects Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, rather than the national network of trains envisioned by Obama.
"We are being given a chance to refocus and reform the high-speed rail program," Shuster said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he expects more than $1 billion in high-speed rail construction-related activity across the country next year.
Mort Downey, the No. 2 Transportation Department official under President Bill Clinton and a former Obama campaign adviser, said Obama's high-speed rail plans depend on the California project.
"If California continues to go forward, we're still on life support," Downey said.