Jerry Brown's Waterloo Station? California high-speed rail takes a new hit.

A congressional committee says it will investigate federal funding for California's embattled high-speed rail project. California Gov. Jerry Brown's continued support is making him an increasingly lonely voice. 

California High Speed Rail Authority/AP/File
An artist's rendering of a high-speed train station in California. State rail officials say they're going to shorten the route of the planned Bay Area-to-Southern California high-speed train system, saying the $68 billion project won't build a train line from San Francisco to Anaheim as originally intended.

The strikes against California’s high-speed rail project keep piling up, but Gov. Jerry Brown refuses to abandon the project, with one political analyst even likening him to Captain Ahab.

The latest blow to California’s plan to connect north and south with an ambitious network of high-speed rail lines came Monday in Washington. Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California announced that the oversight committee he chairs will investigate crucial federal funding of the project.

That followed two studies – one by and independent panel, one by the state auditor – that called the plan risky. Polls show faltering support among California voters because of rising costs.

Governor Brown’s continuing support for the project – which is expected to cost $68 billion, according to a new business plan – suggests that he sees high-speed rail as a part of his legacy, just as his father, legendary Gov. Pat Brown, is credited with building up modern-day California’s university and water system in the 1960s.

“Brown is trying to leave a legacy in the tradition of his father,” says Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

But for a Democratic governor who is depending on voters to pass a tax hike this year that he says is crucial to balancing the state budget long-term, his insistence on high-speed rail could have consequences.

Jerry Brown's continued pursuit of the ‘bullet train’ carries some notable political costs,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “It provides a big target for his GOP rivals, who will use the initiative to characterize Brown as a big tax-and-spend politician.”

The significance of the congressional probe is that it threatens to disrupt federal funding. High-speed rail officials intend to pay for half the project's costs with federal funds, but they are running into roadblocks. Republicans in Congress largely oppose President Obama’s plans to make high-speed rail available to 80 percent of Americans by 2037. The California project is a key part of Mr. Obama’s vision.

But the California plan has been taking flak in recent months:

  • A January report by the state auditor concluded that California’s proposed bullet train is “increasingly risky” and has inadequate oversight. 
  • Three weeks before that, an independent panel required by law to review the plans said the bullet train poses “an immense financial risk.”
  • In November, California's independent Legislative Analyst’s Office said parts of the plan don’t comply with the 2008 ballot measure that authorized state funding for the project. 

Now Congressman Issa is ramping up scrutiny of the federal government’s role.

"California high-speed rail was sold to voters as a grand vision for tomorrow but in practice appears to be no different than countless other pork-barrel projects – driven more by political interests and consultant spending than valid cost-benefit analysis," he said in a statement. "Before more taxpayer money is sent to the rail authority, questions must be answered about mismanagement, conflicts of interest, route selection, ridership and other risks."

Some political analysts dismiss the significance of the probe. “I don't suspect that this investigation and potentially hearings would be taken particularly seriously,” says Corey Cook, associate professor of public affairs at the University of San Francisco.

But the investigation does add another potential hurdle for a project already facing many.

“In a state as fiscally depleted as California, it is a very steep and long march uphill,” says Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “The project must have federal support to happen. If the investigation and continued attention lead to the Obama administration and Congress withdrawing their support, the project will likely die.”

Brown has so far been one of the plan’s most vocal supporters. That could leave him exposed.

“The national government has shown little fiscal capacity or political will to pursue such projects, making Brown's advocacy a relatively lonely voice,” says Professor Schier of Carleton College. “A lonely voice seldom prevails in politics.”

Moreover, the project undercuts Brown’s image in California as a prudent manager, says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College

“The rail project will make it tougher for him to gain public support for a tax increase that’s on the ballot this fall. [Brown] says that the tax hike is necessary to prevent cuts in education,” Professor Pitney says. “But with the bullet train, he sounds like a father who lets his kids go hungry while he goes out and buys a Cadillac.

“He’s spending billions that we don’t have on a project that we don’t need,” he adds. “Like Captain Ahab, Brown is pursuing a senseless goal that will end up dragging him down.”

Others disagree.

“The governor … doesn't have that much to lose from a political standpoint,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, via e-mail. “The governor flourishes under adverse circumstances, and high-speed rail allows Brown the opportunity to build on a tarnished legacy.”

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