House panel derails California's high-speed trains

WASHINGTON — A key House panel late Thursday gave the back of its hand to California's embattled high-speed rail program.

In another sign of high-speed rail's political travails, the House committee writing a massive transportation bill included an amendment that prohibits new federal funds from going to California's proposed $98 billion project during the five-year life of the bill.

"I want to make sure that the money that comes to California goes to highway funding," Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican, said in an interview.

Denham, who has moved his California residence from Atwater to Turlock, offered the amendment during an excruciatingly long and sometimes contentious markup of the bill dubbed the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act.

Denham's amendment, adopted by a 31-22 vote, marks the first and only time the word 'California' appears in the House transportation bill that started out at 847 pages. It was fought by Democrats, during a hearing that stretched more than 16 hours and ended with the bill's approval at 2:45 a.m. Friday.

"I think it's a big mistake," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said of Denham's total high-speed rail cutoff. "The high-speed rail authority is rapidly adjusting its program, looking for ways of significantly reducing the cost."

The overall $260 billion House bill omits individual spending earmarks and cuts Amtrak funding by 25 percent. It also seeks to speed construction by shortening environmental reviews and claims funding in part by spurring oil-and-gas drilling on public lands in Alaska and elsewhere.

The bill's long-term fate is uncertain, as it differs in some important ways from a two-year Senate being shepherded by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"The American people need a transportation bill," Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke said in a statement. "This (House) bill will prevent them from getting one."

There's also a symbolic element to the California high-speed rail amendment, as the underlying bill does not authorize any high-speed rail spending. California planners do not anticipate needing additional federal funds for several years. The signal, though, is consistent with others sent by congressional Republicans, who have largely lined up to oppose a proposal strongly backed by the Obama administration.

"It's always important to clarify your intention," Denham said.

California and every other state still have a big stake in what happens with the transportation bill. The bill would deliver block grants as well as lift certain regulations and impose new prescriptions. States, for instance, would be required under the House bill to compile a list of the 10 highway-railway crossings that have "the greatest need for safety improvements." California alone has more than 9,000 highway-railway crossings, some of them dangerous.

In 2010, the Transportation Department tallied 127 "incidents" at California crossings, in which a total of 28 people died.

The House bill also would repeal many grant programs included in the last big transportation bill, which was signed in 2005. The previous bill, for instance, included a seat-belt safety grant program that provided some $36 million to California. This grant program would die under the new House bill.

Similarly, the new bill would eliminate a grant program aiding commercial motor vehicle safety training. These individual grants totaling about $87,000 a year have gone to schools including West Hills College in the western Fresno County town of Coalinga, Transportation Department records show.

More broadly, the new House bill would eliminate the prior bill's "high-priority" program, which steered some $2.5 billion to California for hundreds of projects that ranged from improving Sacramento-area air quality to widening Friant Road in rural Fresno County.

"I think we need to live within our means," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said during the markup.

Law enforcement and traffic safety lobbyists from California and other states won at least one victory Thursday, as the committee by a 33-22 vote eliminated a provision that would have allowed states to permit trucks weighing up to 97,000 pounds to operate on highways. The current limit is 80,000 pounds.

"We can't, in good conscience, let these huge vehicles, with the higher center of gravity and increased likelihood of rollover, share our roads," Santa Barbara Senior Sheriff's Deputy Michael Durant, vice president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, warned before the markup.

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