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Republicans cry foul over $8 billion for high-speed rail

Alleging the money is for an Anaheim-Las Vegas rail project, they accuse Sen. Harry Reid of putting an earmark in the stimulus package. Democrats dismiss the charge, saying the DOT will make the call.

February 14, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — A proposed Anaheim-to-Las Vegas high-speed train became a hot topic as Congress prepared to pass an economic recovery bill.

In reality, not a word about the train appears in the 1,000-plus page, $787-billion bill that Congress passed Friday night.

However, the bill does provide $8 billion for unspecified high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects, more than three times as much as allocated in earlier versions of the legislation.

"I guess they hit the jackpot," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said.

In a town that loves to connect the dots, the funding increase raised suspicions that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who played a key role in writing the bill, pushed for it in order to promote home-state interests, namely the Anaheim-to-Las Vegas project.

"Tell me how spending $8 billion in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio complained as he and all his fellow Republicans voted against the stimulus. Republicans cited the rail project in accusing Democrats of breaking their word to keep the bill free of pet projects.

A Reid spokesman said the money was not being earmarked for any specific project but would be available on a competitive basis. "This was a major priority for President Obama, and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it," said Jon Summers.

"It's not just specifically for us," said Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, which plans to seek a still-undetermined amount of the stimulus money for the $12-billion-to-$14-billion project.

Republicans also criticized the allocation of $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts to fund art projects and activities that "preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn."

Defending the spending, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said: "There are 5 million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment -- or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn't real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance?"

Proposals for magnetic levitation trains that could travel 300 mph and whisk passengers between Anaheim and Las Vegas in 86 minutes have been floated for decades as a way to ease traffic on Interstate 15 and reduce pollution -- and, of course, boost the Las Vegas economy. The project's boosters hope the stimulus money will help get it moving.

"This is good for the country," Aguilera said. "Once you get one of these built, everybody's going to want one."

A number of high-speed rail projects have been proposed across the country and are expected to compete for the funds.

California officials are likely to seek about $2 billion for an Anaheim-to-San Francisco train that could travel up to 220 mph. The $33-billion project isn't ready to break ground, but the California High-Speed Rail Authority hopes to secure money from the bill for some preparatory work.

Obey also took issue with Republicans' efforts to portray the rail funding as an earmark.

"The worst thing that people can do in this town is to believe their own baloney," he said. Noting that funding decisions will be made by the Department of Transportation, he added, "The last time I looked, the new Cabinet secretary was a Republican."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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