Republicans Seek Return of $2 billion from Calif. Rail Project

Without the stimulus money, California would not have enough cash to start the $43 billion rail project.

Wasting no time after a victorious midterm election, Republican congressional leaders who promised to cut spending are looking to make an example out of the nation's priciest public works project: California's $43 billion high-speed railroad.

A coalition of 27 House Republicans, led by the ranking member of the committee that controls spending, wants to reclaim $2 billion in stimulus funds promised to California to kick-start the project.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., last week introduced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Rescission Act, which would return the final $12 billion in unspent and uncommitted stimulus funds to the U.S. Treasury.

About half the remaining stimulus money is set aside for planned high-speed rail projects. The largest is in California, which has spent nearly $200 million of its $2.25 billion award on planning but is saving the rest for construction.

Without stimulus money - which unlocked another $2 billion in matching state bond money - California would not have enough cash available to start construction.

The state plans to spend more than $4 billion to start laying tracks in the Central Valley by the stimulus deadline of September 2012. The tracks would extend to the Caltrain line from San Francisco to San Jose and to Southern California, with service starting by 2020.

Although the funds would barely make a dent in the federal deficit, Lewis said the bill was only the "tip of the iceberg" in "dramatically scaling back funding" during the next two years.

"There is no better place to begin this process," Lewis said in a letter to President Barack Obama dated Nov. 15. "This represents a first down-payment in GOP efforts to eliminate wasteful government spending and reduce the deficit."

The Obama administration sent back a response defending the project, saying the bill would "negatively impact our economic strength both now and in the future." High-speed rail is a signature program for Obama, who sees such projects as a way to create jobs and improve transportation options.

"We can ill-afford to take such action at this time of heightened economic challenges," Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote on behalf of Obama.

Although the bill would have to get past a Democratic-controlled Senate and Obama's veto, the sentiment behind the legislation is enough to give the California High-Speed Rail Authority pause. The agency is banking on not only keeping its stimulus money but attracting another $15 billion from the federal government during the decade.

Authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said Monday that he agency knows it will be a challenge to secure the money but leaders aren't panicking.

"True high-speed rail is worth funding," she said, adding she thought the benefits of the project were too great for Congress to pass the bill removing the funding.

Lewis' bill is awaiting discussion in three House subcommittees, including appropriations, of which he is the ranking member and hopes to chair in the new Congress. Among the bill's 26 co-sponsors as of Monday are four Republicans from California.

(c) Copyright (c) 2010, San Mateo County Times, Calif.

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