By KEVIN FREKING, ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- Republican lawmakers expressed doubts Thursday about the viability of California's high-speed rail project, indicating that it will be extremely difficult for supporters to generate the tens of billions of dollars in federal investment that will be needed to complete the proposed 800-mile line.
A House panel held an oversight hearing examining the project's status after recent costs estimates more than doubled to $98.5 billion. Proponents envision that the trains, traveling at up to 220 miles an hour, would help transform the state's economy by allowing quicker travel between the state's largest metropolitan areas and by relieving congestion on clogged highways.
Republicans who were once supportive of the project, however, are starting to have doubts. GOP Rep. John Mica of Florida, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, describing the project as "imploding." He noted that the California line has received about $4 billion in federal money, or about a third of the government's investment in high speed rail nationally.
"That's a huge amount of money that will not show success," Mica said.
State voters approved an additional $10 billion in bond money for high-speed rail, but a recent poll shows dwindling support for the project, which would extend from Sacramento and San Francisco to San Diego. More government dollars will be needed, but several members of the Republican-controlled House indicated that the federal tap should be shut off — at least until a government audit can be conducted.
Democratic lawmakers pushed back, saying the state's transportation network is overwhelmed and that alternatives are needed to keep the state economically competitive. They noted that China is undergoing a construction boom in high-speed rail.
Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of California said that with low interest rates and inflation, it is the perfect time to invest heavily in the high-speed rail line. He also said that major infrastructure projects of the past, such as the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, would never have been completed if past leaders had been so pessimistic.
"It sounds like some of you say we can't do anything," he said in response to the Republicans' criticism.
"It's never an easy thing to invest in the beginning," added Rep. Loretta Sanchez. "We must have the courage to say we need high-speed rail and that it makes sense for the backbone of California to have that in place and that it will cost money."
California's high-speed rail line would be built in two phases. The first would extend from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim; the second would extend the line to Sacramento in the north and San Diego in the south. Proponents said that construction would generate 100,000 jobs over the next five years.
Rep Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said that some of money going to high-speed rail could be put to better use, such as building up infrastructure that would make more water available to California's farms and residents.
Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia observed early in the hearing that the political divide within the state's congressional delegation reminded him of the delegation's political battles over water supply.
"It's like a never-ending TV reality show," Rahall said.
Rohrabacher responded that he would rather be compared to a reality show than to be compared to "Fantasy Island," underscoring his point that the project didn't make economic sense.
The Obama administration reiterated its support for the high-speed rail proposal in California. Joseph C. Szabo, administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, said each stage of the line would generate an operating profit and would produce substantial public benefits, such as improved air quality and reduced congestion.
He said that private investors are interested in the project, but it's not realistic to expect substantial private investments until after initial construction. He voiced concern that private investors could be scared away.
"The worst thing we can do is show uncertainty," Szabo said.
Lawmakers also questioned the wisdom of starting construction in the state's farm belt — the Central Valley. Proponents said the flat terrain allows for lower acquisition and construction costs, and that it would not take as long for construction to begin there.
They also said the region badly needs the jobs from the construction.
Rep. Jeff Denham, of California, had sought the hearing. The Republican was a critical vote to get a bond proposal before voters in 2008, but he said the project now bears little resemblance to what supporters had pitched to state lawmakers and is no longer affordable.