The White House on Tuesday announced plans to spend $53 billion over the next six years to build high-speed railroads, bringing California's massive bullet train project closer to reality.
But congressional Republicans, who control the House and have vowed to slash spending, stand as a formidable opponent to the funding proposal outlined by Vice President Joe Biden. It's also unclear where most of the federal funds would come from.
But should the plan -- one of President Barack Obama's signature job-creation initiatives -- go through, California would be in line for the biggest chunk of funding. That money would fuel the state's $43 billion bullet train project -- its biggest public works undertaking in a generation, and one that has been called both California's most promising and most wasteful endeavor.
Since California has the nation's largest and most advanced project, with construction to start next year in the Central Valley, the state has over the past few years received about 30 percent of federal bullet train grants.
If that formula holds, the state would get about $16 billion from the U.S. government over the next six years under Obama's pledge. That amount is more than Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles spend on their budgets and construction projects in a year -- combined.
Already armed with $9 billion in state bonds and about $3.6 billion from the federal government,
"This is the kind of bold investment in the future of our nation's infrastructure that will get the attention of the private sector and make high-speed travel a reality in the United States," Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in a statement.
And right on cue, the rail authority late Tuesday scheduled an announcement for Wednesday to discuss new "developments related to private-sector interest in California's high-speed rail project."
The money could be used to extend the first stage of construction -- a $5.5 billion, 120-mile line between roughly Fresno and Bakersfield -- toward the Bay Area and Southern California. The tracks will run along the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose.
The caveats, though, are plentiful.
Critics led by Republican members of Congress challenged the plans, especially in light of Obama's State of the Union address that called for freezing discretionary spending. And they said many train projects across the nation have proven to be money losers.
"This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio," Rep. Joe Mica, R-Fla., the House Transportation Committee chairman, said in a statement.
Although Senate Democrats have generally supported funding high-speed rail, the Republican-led House could veto the plans if a compromise isn't reached.
Even if the funds come to California, state critics have spent the past two years arguing that the project will balloon well past its $43 billion price tag. A Bay Area News Group analysis of comparable projects around the world showed that the project should actually cost $38 billion to $73 billion.
Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a Palo Alto-based group, pored over thousands of pages of rail authority documents and determined last week that the actual projected price tag, based on estimates of each section of track, should be $63 billion.
The rail authority has been viewed skeptically for relying on another $10 billion from private investors and up to $5 billion from local governments, even though it has no funding commitments from either sector.
White House officials said the first $8 billion would come from the federal budget for the coming fiscal year, which Obama plans to unveil next week. But officials would not say where the rest of the money would come from. Most of its previous high-speed rail funds came from the stimulus package approved by Congress.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.