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GOP lawmakers question big awards to California high-speed rail

Early research and planning for the project dates back to the early 2000s, but it still faces major funding gaps and potential lengthy delays

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., attends a panel organizational meeting and hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Feb. 1, 2023.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., attends a panel organizational meeting and hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Feb. 1, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans in Congress are shining oversight attention on federal funds flowing to California’s high-speed rail project, questioning whether the Biden administration has a bias toward this and other pet projects when awarding infrastructure dollars.

The top Republicans on the House and Senate transportation committees, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, are demanding answers on more than $3 billion in 2021 infrastructure law funding awarded to the project in December, on top of other federal grants awarded last year.

“Despite evidence that continues to show that the California High Speed Rail project has critical issues indicating there is no reasonable path forward for successful completion of the project . . . the Biden administration continues to allocate substantial federal taxpayer dollars to this highly questionable endeavor,” Graves and Cruz wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “As such, many other cost effective and worthy projects may have lost out on this funding in favor of [the California High-Speed Rail Authority.]”

Early research and planning for the project dates back to the early 2000s, but it still faces major funding gaps and potential 15-to-20-year setbacks, according to the group assigned with oversight of the project, the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group.

The watchdog group reported that the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2024 Draft Business Plan showed a phase I unfunded gap of $93 billion to $99 billion, and that the unfunded gap for just the Merced to Bakersfield section could be as much as $6.7 billion.

“There is no existing federal or state program that would fill this gap, either as to size or stability,” the group said.

The project’s woes have turned it into a prime political target over the years.

The Trump administration announced in 2019 it was terminating a federal agreement to provide nearly $1 billion after the California High-Speed Rail Authority “failed to make reasonable progress on the project,” the administration said in a statement. The Biden administration restored the funding in 2021.

House Republicans also included in this year’s Transportation-HUD spending package a provision that would block the Transportation Department from spending annual appropriations and infrastructure law funds on the project. However, the provision was not included in the final fiscal 2024 spending bill.

“If you want to look in the dictionary, under the word ‘boondoggle,’ you would probably find the California high-speed rail project process,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said on the floor in December. “They’re going to seek more and more federal funding for what used to be a $33 billion project and that will be a $128 billion project.”

Promise of popularity

High-speed rail advocates argue that the benefits of the completed rail line will outweigh the delays and costs.

Ray LaHood, Transportation secretary during the Obama administration and current co-chair of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Coalition, a group advocating for the high-speed rail industry, said in an interview the rail line is projected to be “wildly popular.”

He pointed to the Brightline high-speed rail line in Florida that connects Orlando to Miami that’s seeing increasing ridership. “It’s wildly popular, is well oversubscribed in terms of ridership, and they’ve had to add additional trains in order to accommodate the people,” he said. “People will be using [the California line] in a way that we’ve seen happen in Florida.”

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, the state group tasked with planning and constructing the rail line, reported in a cost benefit analysis that it expects collective net benefits to total $848 billion through 30 years of operation between San Francisco and Los Angeles, compared with a cost estimate of $89 billion to $128 billion for construction of the system.

The authority further estimated in its 2024 business plan that it would cost $179 billion to $253 billion to construct equivalent highway and air passenger capacity.

“It’s important to reiterate that building a mega-project of this size — over 500 miles — must be done in stages when funding is available,” a spokesperson for the authority said in an email. The person added that the project so far has created more than 13,000 construction jobs, built 45 completed structures, and completed over 57 miles of riding surface.

A 2022 Berkeley Institute of Government Studies and Los Angeles Times poll found 56 percent of voters supported continuing construction of the system as planned, while 35 percent were opposed.

LaHood added that other high-speed rail projects, like the Brightline West project connecting Las Vegas, Nev., to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., are also receiving high-dollar federal rewards because they are popular. The premise of the high-speed rail line shouldn’t be political, he argued, because any transformative transportation project requires big investment.

“I vote in the Republican primary, I’m still a Republican, and I support high-speed rail, because I know it’s what the American people want,” La Hood said. “We built the interstate system, it took 50 years to do it and it cost an enormous amount of money. And so now, we’re going to the next generation of transportation.”

Infrastructure dollar bias

Some Republicans support high-speed rail projects in their districts. For example, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, asked DOT for support in 2023 on a grant for the Texas Central high-speed rail project connecting Dallas to Houston, according to Congressional Correspondence Logs.

Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, has also voiced support for the same project.

But Cruz and Graves are concerned about bias in choosing the California project for federal dollars, a staff member familiar with GOP oversight negotiations said. They question whether there may be a “local political influence” that’s causing certain projects to have a leg up in award decisions, the staffer said.

The staff member said the initial oversight is focused on the California project, but if their request for information yields other concerns, they intend to expand it. Cruz has also raised concerns about Biden administration funding for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, arguing that ‘Amtrak Joe’ has favored the East Coast route.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority said in an email that its officials have seen Graves and Cruz’s letter, adding that they stand ready to respond to federal officials’ requests.

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