Excitement at Transbay Event, But Federal Transportation Bill Uncertain

Transbay_groundbreak_1.jpgSenator Barbara Boxer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, US DOT Secretary Ray Lahood, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board Chairman and SFMTA CEO Nat Ford at the Transbay Transit Center groundbreaking. Photos: Matthew Roth.

Though most of the California political class celebrated the groundbreaking of the new Transbay Transit Center with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in San Francisco yesterday, significant questions remain for funding a national high-speed rail network through the federal transportation act.

The event swarmed with Secret Service and various other branches of law enforcement keeping an eye on a crowd that, as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom joked with LaHood, was mostly made up of consultants on the Transbay project.

LaHood cracked wise several times at Newsom's expense, repeating more comments Newsom made before the press conference to the public and the media and suggesting Californian's should vote him in as Lt. Governor on his humor alone.

When he stopped ribbing Newsom, LaHood gushed about how far "ahead of the curve" California is on high-speed rail. LaHood said U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) had cast "courageous votes" that made the stimulus bill possible, which meant a $48 billion infusion for the US DOT or nearly two-thirds his annual budget. From the $8 billion President Barack Obama added for high-speed rail nationally, California received $2.3 billion, $400 million of that for the Transbay Transit Center.

"People who come back from Europe or Asia and have ridden high-speed rail, like many of you have, come back to America and ask why we don't have high-speed rail in America? Because we've never made the investment, that's why," said LaHood. "This year we had 8 billion times more money for high-speed rail given President Obama's vision to connect America with high-speed, inter-city rail."

LaHood also pointed to California's competitive advantage in federal money for high speed rail because the state has "its act together and you want high-speed rail, you've been working on it for a decade."

"The people deserve a lot of credit, to go to the polls, and to cast votes to raise taxes in order to develop the kind of infrastructure for high-speed rail, the people deserve a lot of credit."

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A day later LaHood was still excited by his visit to San Francisco, and he wrote on the US DOT's Fast Lane blog, "The Transit Center is part of a larger redevelopment effort that will breathe new life into the Bay Area and provide people with better transportation, housing, and employment options. It's a true embodiment of the livability principles I talk about so often."

While ribbon cutting on such a monumental project made for good photos and sound bites, long-term funding for high-speed rail nationally and in California is not a sure thing. Despite the $8 billion last year and another $2.5 billion this year, the U.S. lags far behind China, which is investing nearly $300 billion over the next decade on its high-speed rail network. What's more, states sought seven times more funding for rail than the stimulus gave out and demand is only growing.

When asked if the Senate will take up the re-authorization of the national transportation act, Senator Boxer told Streetsblog after the Transbay event she hoped to have a bill out of her Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and to the Senate floor this year. "I think we have a very good chance but I can't say for sure," she said.

When asked if her bill would mirror House Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar's (D-MN) commitment to increase transit funding, Boxer said, "I would hope so. I would hope we will be able to do that."

When asked whether she thought she could convince Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking minority leader on her committee and an opponent of linking climate and transportation policies, to support money for high-speed rail or at least stay out of her way, she said, "I don't know how he feels on high-speed rail," but that it was "not necessarily a problem."

Boxer.jpgSenator Boxer elaborating on the climate and transportation bills.

Boxer also noted that with a comprehensive energy bill unlikely in the near term, she and her colleagues were looking for numerous other options to "put a price on carbon," whether by making sure the Environmental Protection Agency was vigilant in regulating carbon emissions or by supporting states' efforts to limit climate change, such as the Western Climate Initiative.

"If we can't convince our colleagues that this is serious, we're going to do absolutely everything we can absent comprehensive legislation," she said.

While the federal agenda was important to her, Boxer indicated she was concerned with a local battle now brewing: California's Proposition 23, which would suspend the landmark AB 32 climate change law. "The other thing I have to do is just make sure California can move forward and that there's no preemption of what we're doing. Right now I'm fighting to defeat Prop 23, which would be a disaster," she said.

Given recent polling that shows Boxer losing ground to her Republican Senate challenger, Carly Fiorina, transportation advocates nationally should be concerned. If she were to lose her seat to Fiorina and the EPW committee were to be shaken up, a transportation act with significant funding for transit and high-speed rail would be more precarious.