McCarthy slams brakes on federal funding for high-speed rail

McCarthy slams brakes on federal funding for high-speed rail

highspeedrail-300x169High-speed rail has a new obstacle: new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.

McCarthy, who has long opposed the plan, has announced that he’ll block any new initiatives to direct federal funds toward the project. According to the Wall Street Journal, McCarthy insisted he will “do all that I can to ensure not one dollar of federal funding goes to boondoggles like California’s high-speed rail. The government’s handling of hard earned taxpayer dollars must be based on merit and facts, not upon a desired legacy.”

The legacy in question, of course, belongs to Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown has been unstinting in his support of high-speed rail, defending it from Republican critics and diverting cap-and-trade revenues away from environmental uses favored by Democrats. For his part, the governor told the Journal that McCarthy and congressional Republicans “have decided that it’s better to treat high-speed rail as a political football, than as a great civic opportunity.” Federal dollars flow to California bridges and roads, Brown reasoned, implying they ought to benefit the state’s controversial rail project as well.

In June, the House of Representatives already voted to strip funding for the train from its most recent transportation bill, passing an amendment put forth by Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. Federal funding has been contingent on the amount Californians raise on their own, in the form of bond measures that have been tied up in the courts. But a new court ruling, which likely loosens the purse strings, makes McCarthy’s promise more significant.

Legal wrangling

The latest twist in the ongoing high-speed rail saga involves a decision handed down by the Third District Court of Appeal. A lower court had ruled last year that a voter-approved bond issuance to fund the train could not proceed. To move forward, the California High Speed Rail Authority would have to clear higher funding and environmental hurdles than anticipated — a time-consuming and costly process.

A panel of three judges on the Court threw out that decision, rejecting the lower court’s level of scrutiny into the bond authorization. Plaintiffs in the case have not yet decided whether to appeal to the Supreme Court

Meanwhile, another lawsuit is pending in California Superior Court. The plaintiffs in that suit allege that the bond measure was approved by voters who trusted ballot language concerning the train’s travel time. In April, state lawmakers were told that the train almost certainly would not be able to hit those estimates during scheduled service.

Political pushback

Aside from the train’s legal challenges, however, the political dimension to the controversy is heating up. Ironically, a court order to proceed with bond sales would advantage Republicans in some ways as well. Neel Kashkari, who faces Brown in November, has put opposition to the train front and center in his campaign for governor. Now he has announced an alternative. If officials cancel the high-speed rail project, he argued, voters could “repurpose the bond money for water storage projects.”

That line of rhetoric could put fresh pressure on Brown as California’s drought worsens. The Fresno Bee recently reported on the plight of the Haflich family, which crystallizes the charge of misplaced priorities that could come Brown’s way. Although the Hafliches’ well has run out of water, they’re stuck on their property. They can’t find a buyer because their home sits in the path of the bullet train’s construction.

That’s where federal funding — or the lack thereof — comes back into the picture. “The rail authority says its hands are tied, at least for the time being, by its funding agreements with the federal government to spend money only within the boundaries to be covered in its current and future construction contracts,” according to the Bee.

The Haflichs’ unusual predicament may not be shared by many Californians. But it does underscore the kinds of unintended consequences that high-speed rail can create in the state’s current climate.

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