As supporters push forward on plans to break ground on construction by year's end, critics are demanding a second look and... perhaps... a scrapping of the project altogether. And both camps have the political firepower to wage an epic battle.
This morning, the latest jab from opponents: Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, asked for a formal federal audit.
"Good stewardship of taxpayer dollars is a priority for us," McCarthy wrote in his letter (PDF) to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). "Allowing the money of hard-working Americans to be wasted on a questionable project with many unanswered questions would be an abdication of our responsibilities as elected officials of the American people."
The federal role in the financing of the project is crucial. Dollars from D.C. will be used in the first leg of construction, and additional federal funds must then help build out the initial phase of a train system from San Francisco to Anaheim.
McCarthy asked the GAO to examine seven issues, from ridership projections to the thorny issue of operating subsidies to costs vis-a-vis other systems of transportation and other high speed rail plans across the U.S.
(As a footnote, remember that McCarthy served as GOP leader in the Assembly when the $9.95 billion high speed rail bond was delayed from the 2006 ballot to November 2008. McCarthy voted for that proposal.)
The request for a GAO audit comes on the heels of a contentious Capitol Hill hearing last week about the project which, as we know, itself came on the heels of a GOP led effort in Congress to kill future funding, and new and heated debate about the rail authority's upwardly revised price tag of $98 billion for the SF-to-Anaheim corridor.
All of this seems to have created an environment of uncertainty at the state Capitol. It's unclear whether the prevailing political winds will continue to be behind the project or blow it off course and -- perhaps -- out of existence.
There's no doubt been praise for the newly constituted leadership of the California High Speed Rail Authority and its approach to planning and execution. But there's not yet unanimity on whether the Legislature should approve, as required, the first appropriations from 2008's Proposition 1A voter approved bonds.
It may have been voters who approved borrowing the money, but it's the the Legislature that now has to act to get the ball rolling.
While legislative Republicans seem resolute in their desire to stop the project, there have been some interesting laments about the project's challenges among some key Democrats. And given that the Prop 1A bond funds must eventually be paid back, with interest, out of the beleaguered state general fund, the discussion may come back to what the state can -- and can't -- afford. Governor Jerry Brown unveils his proposed budget on January 10, and critics of high speed rail may use the opportunity to remind everyone of the annual debt service the Prop 1A bonds will require once they've all been sold.
But the greatest weapon for rail advocates may be Brown himself. After all, not only did the governor remake the Authority's board with members of his own liking (including his top economic adviser), but he offered full-throated praise for the project on the release of its new business plan:
"California's high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California's population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion. The High-Speed Rail Authority's business plan is solid and lays the foundation for a 21st century transportation system."
Even so, there are signs that the voters might be having a change of heart. 64% of voters in a December 6 Field Poll (PDF) support a new ballot measure on high speed rail, and 59% of those said they'd vote against the project.
Still, this is a debate that's just getting started. While critics call the project a boondoggle, supporters call it visionary. One side laments the dollars that will be diverted from other needs; the other will invoke the great infrastructure projects in California history as proof of what a long-term investment can create.
It should be interesting.