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Morain: High-speed rail's unusual twist

  • This image provided by the California High Speed Rail Authority shows an artist's rendering of a high-speed train speeding along the California coast. California's ambitious bullet train project is picking up momentum thanks to the $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail development in the economic stimulus package signed into law this week. The state is agressively going after federal funding for the 800-mile high-speed rail system as it vies with a dozen designated high-speed rail corridors across the nation for a share of the money. (AP Photo/California High Speed Rail Authority) ** NO SALES **

Rep. Jeff Denham has tried gamely to block California's high-speed rail project. Now, it seems, he may have tripped over himself.

In the past, the San Joaquin Valley Republican has called for a redo of the 2008 statewide vote authorizing California to spend $9.95 billion to help build the rail project, and has sought to divert the money to widen Highway 99, to no avail.

Denham had more success in February when he used his status as chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads to urge that the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates interstate railroads, decide whether it had jurisdiction over California's intrastate rail project.

While not telling the board to assert its authority, the second-term congressman wrote that "it is imperative that the authorities set forth in the Interstate Commerce Act, including the requirement for construction authority, be followed." The effort worked, though perhaps not as Denham had wished.

Initially, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, the project's leading advocate, fought federal oversight. But after the Surface Transportation Board issued its opinion in June asserting control over the project, Brown decided that the board's involvement wasn't such a bad idea after all.

The reason: Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority conclude that so long as the feds are in control, they need not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, the nettlesome state law that is cited regularly to slow and stop all manner of projects from being built.

Acting on the governor's behalf, California Attorney General Kamala Harris took the remarkable step of writing to the California Court of Appeal earlier this month essentially ceding state rights to the feds.

Once the federal board asserted its authority, Harris' deputy wrote, "the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act preempts a California Environmental Quality Act remedy in this appeal."

Like any self-respecting state officials, Brown and Harris normally would fight federal efforts to preempt state law. But not in this upside-down instance. Denham, like most Republicans, ordinarily would oppose federal meddling in state affairs. But not this time.

By sending the letter that led to the Surface Transportation Board's involvement, Denham, who didn't respond to my requests for an interview, managed to undermine his allies — or at least the enemies of his enemies — in the fight against the rail project.


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