WASHINGTON – Congress is on the verge of killing funding for President Barack Obama's signature high-speed rail program, but it may have some life in it still.
Republican lawmakers are claiming credit for killing the program. But billions of dollars still in the pipeline will ensure work will continue on some projects. And it's still possible money from another transportation grant program can be steered to high-speed trains.
Obama had requested $8 billion in fiscal 2012 for the program, and $53 billion over six years. House and Senate negotiators agreed to a measure this week that eliminates any funding specifically for high-speed trains. Final passage of the bill, which funds day-to-day operations at the Transportation Department and several other agencies in fiscal 2012, is expected Thursday in the House and Friday in the Senate.
Republicans have made it clear since taking control of the House last year that they intended to eliminate the program, which they say is too costly.
The bill marks "an end to the president's misguided high-speed rail program, but it is not the end of American high-speed rail," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's railroad subcommittee.
Shuster and the Transportation Committee's chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., say the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. is in the Northeast rail corridor that connects Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, rather than the national network of trains envisioned by Obama.
"We are being given a chance to refocus and reform the high-speed rail program," Shuster said.
But Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an Obama ally and high-speed rail supporter, said he is confident some money will be found to keep Obama's train program going through the Transportation Department's TIGER program, which makes grants to projects that achieve critical national objectives.
The 2012 spending bill includes $500 million for the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program. High-speed trains would have to compete with highway, transit, port and freight rail projects for money.
Since Obama took office in 2009, his administration has steered $10.1 billion to high-speed rail projects around the country. Some of the money is only now being used because of the time it takes to start up a major grant program and because the program suffered setbacks when several GOP governors canceled projects in their states that had been awarded funds.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he expects more than $1 billion in high-speed rail construction-related activity across the country next year.
The biggest project is in California, where the state is proposing Europe-style bullet trains traveling up to 220 mph between San Francisco and Anaheim. Planners hope to start construction of the first phase, from Fresno to Bakersfield, next year and complete it by 2017.
The project has been awarded $3.9 billion in federal aid so far. California voters also authorized $9 billion in bonds for high-speed trains in 2008. But at that time the project was forecast to cost $45 billion and be completed by 2020.
A new estimate and schedule released this month pegged the cost at just under $100 billion and pushed completion out to 2034. One reason for the cost increase is that it takes into account inflation over that period. But the price tag has strengthened the position of the project's opponents.
"What's frustrating about Congress passing no new funding this year is that it adds uncertainty to federal funding," said Petra Todorovitch, director of America 2050, an urban planning and infrastructure advocacy group. "That isn't helpful to projects like California that rely on a certain amount of federal funding."
The first phase of the California project is already funded.
"Some time in the next few years they will need Congress to vote for more money for rail, but it doesn't kill the project that Congress zeroed out funding this year," Petra said.
Mort Downey, the No. 2 Transportation Department official under President Bill Clinton and a former Obama campaign adviser, said Obama's high-speed rail plans depend on the California project.
"If California continues to go forward, we're still on life support," Downey said.
Anthony Perl, chairman of the Transportation Research Board's rail group, said that even if Obama's program collapses, it's "still highly likely" a national high-speed rail network will be built in coming decades, partly because the price of oil is expected to continue to increase.
"There is nothing that uses less oil than moving people than trains," Perl said. "Cheap oil equals more cars and planes; expensive oil equals trains."
California transportation officials estimate that if high-speed train service doesn't go forward, the state will need to spend $171 billion to construct more than 2,300 miles of freeways, four more airport runways and 115 additional airline gates to accommodate the travel demands of the state's population of 54 million people by 2050.