President Obama greets Rep. John Mica, a key transportation panel chairman,… (Shawn Thew, European Pressphoto…)
Advocates of the proposed California bullet train are planning to turn out hundreds of supporters this week at hearings before Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), an influential House transportation committee chairman who has been skeptical of the state's high-speed rail project.
In addition to general supporters, organizers say they want to enlist the help of those with a vested interest in the project, including labor and current contractors, in an attempt to drown out critics, some of whom have challenged the train's ridership and cost estimates.
The lobbying plan has raised concerns among project critics and state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach): They question whether the California High-Speed Rail Authority should be spending taxpayer money to muster political support.
In one e-mail made available to The Times, Roelof van Ark, chief executive of the rail authority, issues directions to a representative of Thompson Public Affairs in Sacramento, which represents an association of rail companies and advocates: "Trust that you are also helping to ensure that (the high-speed rail) industry and labor are out in full force to flood any negative contributors."
Lowenthal, who has oversight responsibilities for high-speed rail, said he did not like the tone of Van Ark's e-mail and that it would be irresponsible for authority officials to dismiss criticism that might be beneficial. Not all critics are opponents of high-speed trains, he noted.
Mica, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has influence over how the federal government allocates money to rail, transit and highway projects. He is scheduled to attend transportation-related hearings in Fresno on Tuesday and Los Angeles, with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), on Wednesday.
Although the Obama administration supports the proposal, some Republicans in Congress have expressed an interest in stripping billions of dollars from the California project to help reduce the federal deficit.
Mica, while not ruling out his eventual support, said earlier this month that he was unimpressed with what he has seen so far, particularly the decision to build the first segment of the system in the state's rural Central Valley using $3.2 billion in federal economic stimulus funds.
The leg would be part of a planned 800-mile system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, with spurs to Sacramento and San Diego.
"The problem with the California pick is that even if they build it, the ridership in that location is not going to be the best," Mica said at a conference of high-speed rail advocates.
E-mails from Van Ark and organizers show that supporters want 300 to 400 people to attend the Fresno event, including high-speed rail manufacturers, builders, current contractors, likely contractors, laborers, business people and community leaders.
Van Ark defended the rail authority in a prepared statement, saying that lobbying is vital to keep Congress apprised of the work and to secure federal funding for a project state voters approved.