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Does Kevin McCarthy's rise spell trouble for Calif.'s high speed rail project?

Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was one of five House members from Central and Southern California who testified at a hearing on the state's high speed rail project.
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield opposes the state's high speed rail project.

It's looking all but certain that Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy will be elected as the next House Majority Leader. But his rise to the number two GOP leadership position could mean trouble for one of Gov. Jerry Brown's pet projects: high speed rail. 

McCarthy has long opposed spending federal dollars on California's bullet train. Testifying before a House hearingearlier this year, he called the California High Speed Rail's Authority's business plan "deeply flawed," saying it left him with "serious concerns with the authority's finances and how they plan to come up with the tens of billions of additional funds needed to complete the project."

Now, with McCarthy almost a heartbeat away from the Speaker, some are wondering whether federal funding for high speed rail is doomed.

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Not in the short term, says Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority. He says the project has already received $3.3 billion in federal money — plus another $3 billion from the state — enough to build the "spine" of the project, the first 130 miles in the Central Valley. For the long term, the project has always planned on about a third of its funding coming from the federal government to build a train that would run from San Francisco to L.A.

McCarthy isn't the only naysayer on the Hill. For the second year in a row, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) attached an amendment to the transportation bill, forbidding funding for California high speed rail. He says after five years of what he dubbed "cost overruns, lawsuits, lost promises of immediate job creation in the Valley, and reduced expectations," unless they can come up with a "viable" plan, "it's time to end this project."

Four California Democrats — Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert), Scott Peters (D-San Diego) and Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) — voted with their Republican colleagues. All four are facing tough re-election fights in November.

The only one willing to comment was Bera, who originally supported the project when he first ran for Congress four years ago. Now, he says, "with the many critical infrastructure projects that need funding in California right now, it's "not the time" to be spending billions on high speed rail.

The Rail Authority's Dan Richard dismisses the vote as largely symbolic, since California is not requesting any funding right now. "I could imagine that people in tight races don't want to be subject to some kind of hit piece over a vote that really had no import whatsoever," he says.

House Republicans and vulnerable Democrats aren't the only ones wavering in their support. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Santa Fe Springs) voted against the Denham amendment. But she's concerned that high speed rail will suck both state and federal dollars away from other infrastructure projects. Napolitano says she's seen it happen: Funding for the expansion of a freeway overpass in her district disappeared into the state's other transportation things-to-fix list.

"That's my concern," she says. "Until they find the funding mechanisms that are going to take care of building the full project as they envision, then I will support it 1,000 percent."

The high speed rail authority is counting on the state legislature passing Brown's proposal to use a carbon tax to pick up the state's share of the effort.

Despite the opposition in Congress, it seems that folks back home still like the project. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of Californiashows about six out of 10 likely voters say high speed rail is important to the state's economy and quality of life. That could change as negative messages about high speed rail get a bigger megaphone from the expected new House Majority Leader.