The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a special hearing Thursday devoted solely to California’s $98-billion high-speed rail project.

Orange County was represented on all sides of the issue with Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana in favor and Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach against. GOP Rep. Gary Miller of Diamond Bar, whose district includes eastern Orange County, said he supports high-speed rail but not this project.

And Tustin City Councilman Jerry Amante, representing the Orange County Transportation Authority, tried to prevent any Orange County transportation projects from becoming collateral damage.

“We [OCTA] have criticisms of the business plan, but we’re not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Amante said.

The four-hour hearing opened with Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, saying he’s been a strong supporter of high-speed rail. But, he added, the California project “seems to be imploding.”

His comments came on the same day that the Los Angeles Times reported the mandated two-hour and 40-minute maximum travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco is driving up the cost of the project.

As the Times put it:

Pricey tunnels and viaducts would enable the train to run up to 220 mph, faster than most high-speed trains travel in Europe and Asia.

In addition to raising construction outlays, such velocity would increase electricity use sharply, working against another mandate, that the bullet train’s revenues cover operating expenses.

During the hearing, supporters talked about the need for visionary projects to carry the state forward; the opportunity to create construction jobs in areas like Fresno, which have very high unemployment rates; and the inability of the Central Valley’s 6 million residents to travel easily to other parts of the state.

Opponents generally citied concerns about the accuracy of financial information supplied by the California High-Speed Rail Authority; poor communication with those most directly affected; and fears the project is too poorly designed to succeed without huge support from tax funds.

Some critics called the project a “fantasy train.” Rohrabacher termed it “the Orient Express” because, he said, it would likely use too many materials from China rather than those made in the U.S.

Sanchez said high-speed rail is a needed alternative to congested freeways. But Elizabeth Alexis, cofounder of Northern California-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, warned of an “unhealthy” relationship between the rail authority and its consultants.

The rail authority is racing to begin building the system before it’s fully prepared in order to qualify for $3 billion in federal stimulus funds, Alexis said.

“The $3 billion in federal funds is the tail wagging the $98-billion dog,” she said, adding that California will need more federal money to finish construction.


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