Wasting no time after a victorious midterm election, GOP Congressional leaders who promised to slash 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 yank $2 billion in stimulus funds promised to California to kick start the massive project.
U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, 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 to help fight the $1.3 trillion U.S. deficit.
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 funds -- which unlocked another $2 billion in matching state bond money -- California would not have enough cash available to start construction and no timeline to do so.
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
"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 Democrat-controlled Senate and Obama's veto pen, 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 the 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.
Also subject to losing stimulus funds under the bill is the Doyle Drive replacement project in San Francisco, which has been awarded $46 million.
H.R. 6403 is awaiting discussion in three House subcommittees, including appropriations, of which Lewis is the ranking member and hopes to chair come January. Among the bill's 26 co-sponsors as of Monday are four Republicans from California, although none from the Bay Area.
Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.