Last month, columnist Dan Morain speculated that Rep. Jeff Denham’s, R-Calif., High Speed Rail ploy backfired (“Ploy Backfired on High Speed Rail).”

Allegedly, Denham’s “ploy” was to get an unfavorable decision from a federal agency that would force California’s High Speed Rail Project to obtain environmental clearances under the state’s “project killer” environmental law, rather than from more lenient federal law. As long-time opponent of High Speed Rail, Denham purportedly could then seal the project’s failure by subjecting it to endless lawsuits.

But was that really Denham’s “ploy”?

Denham is a Republican from Merced County, where government-planned water shortages and high agricultural unemployment have ravaged those in his district.  He is also the powerful chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials that controls federal funding recommendations for rail projects.

Back in February, Denham urged the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to determine if it had paramount jurisdiction over California’s High Speed Rail Project.  Media speculation was that he did so in the hope that the USTB would say no.   Thus, California would be subject to the state’s own “project killer” environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), rather than more lenient federal environmental law.

Surprisingly, the USTB ruled that it had superior jurisdiction over at least the environmental clearance process of the project. What made it a surprise is that California’s High Speed Rail routes do not cross state lines as set forth in the Interstate Commerce Act.

That the USTB is chaired by Daniel R. Elliott III, an appointee of President Obama, who favors the HSR, may also have had something to do with it.

California now has the paradoxical situation where a powerful state’s rights Republican Congressman has brought about federal control over a portion of California’s HSR.  Conversely, Democratic California Attorney General Kamela Harris and Gov. Jerry Brown want to circumvent the state’s environmental laws. When you see politicians on opposite sides of the political tracks reversing roles it would be more reasonable to suspect some sort of political horse trading was going on.

CEQA is what is called a “third rail” in California politics. No Democrat could stand up to the state’s powerful environmental lobby and relax CEQA.  Denham could.  Thus, Morain’s “failed ploy” theory doesn’t hold up. Denham was not an ideological Republican wanting to kill HSR.  If we were going to speculate it would be more consistent with the facts to surmise that what Denham was up to was old-fashioned political horse -trading.   At the same time Denham undertook his “ploy” he was searching for Democratic support for other bills that would bring water for farmers in his Congressional district.

Denham sponsored H.R. 2554 that would bring more water to farmers from New Melones Dam. The dam and reservoir are owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.  The New Melones Dam only releases water to sustain fish and no longer serves farmers, except in a very wet year. It might be called America’s first “all green dam and reservoir.”

Democrats Target Denham with Robocalls

The Sept. 18 issue of the Sacramento Bee reports that Democrats are targeting Rep. Danham with robocalls charging him with shutting down government and withholding financial support for Obamacare.  A robocall is a computerized autodialer that delivers pre-recorded robotic messages for political and telemarketing.  The calls ask Denham “to stop the nonsense and focus on common sense solutions that protect our health and grow our economy.”   No mention is made in the robot calls that HSR might be facing “death by lawsuit” if it were not for Denham’s actions to get the USTB to take over the environmental clearance of that project.

Denham Wants to Keep Amtrak Trains Rolling

As Chairman of a powerful House subcommittee on railroads, Denham is also considering cutting subsidies to California’s Amtrak routes.

Seven of the prime targets for cutbacks are Amtrak routes in California:
The California Zephyr
The Capitol Corridor
The Coast Starlight
The Pacific Surfliner
The San Joaquin
The Southwest Chief
The Sunset Limited
The Texas Eagle

Newspaper headlines read “House Republicans Propose Sharp Amtrak Cuts” to the Capitol Corridor (San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, Auburn), Pacific Surfliner (San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, San Diego) and the San Joaquin (Bakersfield, Oakland, Sacramento) routes.  But a look behind the headlines indicates Denham is trying to preserve these three Amtrak routes.

According to the Rail Passenger Association blog, new Federal legislation would increase California’s share of Amtrak costs by $25 million per year from $90 million to $115 million. House Republicans are not merely cutting subsidies.  Instead they are shifting some of the costs of Amtrak back to the states due to the “sequestration” of the Federal budget deficit.

Outside of the heavily traveled Northeast Amtrak Corridor, California’s Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, and San Joaquin Amtrak routes are some of the most heavily used in the U.S.   The Pacific Surfliner is ranked the third highest in Amtrak ridership. The Capital Corridor is ranked fourth. The San Joaquin is ranked sixth. Thus, these routes are candidates for full or partial privatization, which would keep the trains running.

Robocalls aside, Denham is not seeking “nonsense” solutions that would kill California’s economy or even its HSR project or Amtrak routes.  And California just might see more water re-flow to farmers in the process.